Friday, September 9, 2011

Fill in the blanks

The first few questions on the fourth grade parent questionnaire were easy enough to fill out, and those were the only ones we were required to answer. Parents’ names, email addresses, phone numbers, preferred method of contact.
The questions on the reverse side were optional, Holly’s teacher emphasized, but would help her in getting to know each child better. I studied the questions.

“My child is particularly interested in ______.”

I thought about all the ways I could answer that. The TV show “I-Carly.” Finding new and unusual ways to irritate her brother. Who wants to sit with whom on the school bus.

“Learning about other cultures,” I wrote down. Sure. Such as the culture inhabited by the teens on the show “Suite Life on Deck with Zach and Cody,” or, as I like to think of it, “The Love Boat, Junior.”

“My child is great at _________.”

That’s not the kind of statement I ever make. Holly is good at plenty of things, the kinds of things you would expect a nine-year-old to be good at: art projects, making up stories, building sand castles. But I’m just not the type of parent to refer to my child as great at something.

Even though it’s only the third day of school, I already know Holly’s teacher fairly well, because she was Holly’s second-grade teacher two years ago and we run into each other frequently on campus. I know that not only is she an excellent teacher but she’s also an unfailingly well-meaning person tremendously dedicated to her students, and therefore I know her only intention in asking these questions was to get to know her students better. But I couldn’t help feeling irrationally like the questions were a test, to see what kind of parent I was. The boastful kind? The stage-mother kind? A parent quick to promote her child’s talents, or one genuinely concerned about meeting the curricular benchmarks for the mathematics program?

But the hardest question was yet to come: “List the three words that best describe your child.”

I didn’t second-guess myself until after I’d written them down. “Creative. Cheerful. Self-absorbed.”

Wait a minute, my conscience spoke up. Self-absorbed? You’re not supposed to say that about your own kid! It’s so critical! So negative! You’re supposed to have nothing but positive comments, remember? Otherwise along with “My child is great at _________” there would be a question that said “My child is seriously deficient at ________,” and you didn’t see that one, did you?

I looked again at where I’d written “self-absorbed.” I didn’t mean it in a critical way, just an honest one. Holly spends a lot of time thinking about Holly, that’s all. But what nine-year-old doesn’t? Were there actually parents in the class filling in that line with “altruistic”? Wasn’t self-absorption in a girl Holly’s age to some extent just a manifestation of positive self-esteem? She’s a young girl. She’ll spend plenty of time in her life thinking about other people: friends, romantic partners, bosses, clients, spouses, children of her own. Is it so bad that at the age of nine, her primary focus is herself – possibly for the last time?

I believed in my own argument, but I didn’t want to start off the year on the wrong foot, with her teacher thinking I was overly critical. I deleted “self-absorbed” and changed it to “self-confident.” It’s not quite the same, and frankly it’s not quite as close to what I was trying to say.

But that’s all right. It’s the third day of school; Ms. McCabe has the next nine months to get to know the kids and evaluate the parents’ assessments of their own children. Her primary interest is in the make-up of her classroom, not the way parents fill in blanks. I’ll let it go for now. Ms. McCabe has her own challenge ahead, similar to this one but tougher: coming up with adjectives for Holly and every other kid in the class when report card time comes around.

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