Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Classroom time

My sister Sarah recounted the story yesterday of being invited into her 7-year-old’s classroom as a volunteer reader. Her son was so apprehensive about how she would perform that he devised a series of coded hand signals that would signify whether she was reading too fast, too slow, too quiet, too loud, with too much animation, with too little animation, with too much or too little time to look at the pictures, and so forth. “He was so worried that I was going to embarrass him. It’s a far cry from when he was so excited to have me come into the classroom to read that I could barely peel him off of me far enough to see the pages,” she said.

Hearing her talk about it reminded me of the days when I used to help out in my kids’ classrooms a lot – and then less so – and now barely ever. Tim’s kindergarten teacher liked quite a lot of parental help. It was her first year at our school, and she had come from a school system in which every teacher had a classroom aide, which she no longer did. So she was accustomed to having a second adult in the classroom at all times and tried to fill the gap as much as possible with parents.

It was difficult because then, Tim was the way Sarah described Andrew being prior to now: he was always so happy to see me come into the classroom that it was difficult when I had to leave after my prescribed hour or two. Once, in anticipation of a problem, I discussed it with him ahead of time.

“Tim, I can come in and help only if you promise not to cling,” I said that day.

“Mooooommmmm,” he droned with a tinge of contempt, and I was sure he was about to insist he was no clinger. Instead, he said, “Evvvvverryone clings when their mom comes into the classroom.”

Well, that may have been true when he was in kindergarten, but seven years later, things are a lot different. The teachers don’t want or need us around much anymore, and the kids are even less enthusiastic about our presence, though Tim usually endures my rare appearances at middle school without much complaining. Earlier this month, one of his classes decided to have a potluck lunch in honor of Thanksgiving; I had the job of bringing in the pies he’d made earlier in the week. Once there, I was so curious to see how his classmates had changed since I’d last seen them – months or sometimes years earlier – that I could hardly tear myself away, until I committed a key error. “Claire, you’re dressed for the beach!” I said to one girl who was inexplicably wearing a sundress in mid-November. The teacher pressed his lips together; too late I remembered that another teacher had told me years earlier that teachers are forbidden from commenting on kids’ clothing, or at least what girls are wearing. Parents don’t fall under the same restrictions, but I had still overstepped my bounds as a classroom visitor.

In any case, with middle schoolers, the issue of school volunteering evolves into a very different paradigm: where once our presence was needed as reading helpers or project assistants, now we’re called upon most often not by the teachers but by the kids, and it’s for one critical role: to chaperone their dances. Every time a dance comes up on the schedule, the administration threatens that if the kids don’t rummage up the proper number of chaperones, the event will be canceled, so all the kids feel pressured to call in favors. And then, of course, they face the ultimate dilemma of which prospect is worse: having your mother at a school dance or having no school dance at all.

Tim actually doesn’t mind having me chaperone when my turn comes up, which I try to make happen no more than once a year, and Holly is generally neutral about my visits to school. I can’t say I miss the early days when we were urged to come in at least once a week to help out, but I do appreciate the occasional chance to take a peek at what’s going on. Soon enough, the invitations into the classroom will dwindle down to once a year on parents’ day at the most, depending on my kids’ specific educational future. So I’ll continue to enjoy the time I spend at school with my kids. And, just like the teachers, with enough practice I’ll even learn to hold my tongue when their classmates show up in sandals, midwinter.

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