Last month's prompt invited readers to write an essay that reflects upon the relationship between mothers and schools.
by Amy Rodriguez
I was a teacher before I had kids. I loved the kids I taught, especially the quirky ones. The boy who only wrote about cheese until I had to enforce a "cheese ban." The one who created a superhero eggplant series. The shy girl who stayed after class to talk about books we both loved. And the boy who yelped, "Oh geez, Mrs. Rodriguez! Too much information!" when I told them I was pregnant.
Although I was compassionate and devoted to my students, I was also young and inexperienced. My life was in order. My papers were in order. At the end of the day, I could sit at my desk and check off which students had given me which papers. I loved my record book. My book had systems with tabs and columns and highlighting. So, while I tried not to judge, I am ashamed to say that sometimes I did. Why did I have to send home four copies of a permission slip to Mrs. S. before I'd get one returned? Why did Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So lose the packet I gave them on back-to-school night? Why hadn't I received any of the volunteer forms? I got tired of having to remind the parents of classroom happenings.
More than anything in the world, I dreaded back-to-school night. The tension was palpable. I worked in an affluent town, and I could feel people weighing my words, wondering if I were good enough for their children. Some parents perched on the edges of the tiny chairs. Some eyed me with skepticism. Some asked specific questions, "What's your turn-around time for correcting papers?" "When will you be starting the research project?" "Why do they make posters? That seems remedial." I knew that parents wanted the best for their kids and that's why I taught; I wanted to give them that experience. Most parents were gracious and supportive, but there were parents who, from day one, were suspicious of me. Instead of having faith in my teaching, they came to make demands.
But now, six years later, I am the mom. I am the one at home, trying to get organized enough to make sure my kids get to school with clothes on (preferably for the right season), a snack (other than Pop-Tarts), a lunch (something they'll still like by noon that day), a water bottle (BPA-free, of course), and their soccer stuff (hopefully washed). I have no record book. I have no desk with boundaries that I can sit behind. I have no tabs or highlighting system, and if I did, my daughter would take them for her artwork. Last night, I spent two hours going through forms for the beginning of the school year: health forms, picture day, book orders, PTA activities, extracurricular sign-ups, requests for donations, two class newsletters. And yet, when I reached the bottom of the pile, my daughter handed me a blue sheet: the emergency contact form. "Mama, Miss Gillies hasn't got this from you yet. She wants you to fill this one out and send it back with me."
I cringed. I could not believe I had become that mom: the mom who needs multiple copies, extra time, and friendly reminders from the teachers.
It dawned on me that teachers and mamas everywhere are struggling with similar issues: keeping themselves together, fostering the growth of their little ones, and somehow managing to get their mountains of paperwork in order. We could all benefit from the same things: Assume both teachers and mothers are doing the best we can. Recognize how hard each other's jobs are, and see each other with compassion and gratitude. Give each other time, and err on the side of acceptance.
In many ways, I am lucky. My children's school is incredibly supportive. Thank goodness. Because no matter how independent a child is, sending them to school for eight hours a day is hard on a mama's heart. Yet even with a wonderful school, I am sitting here -- trying not to cry because my daughter is afraid to eat in the cafeteria, and my son sobs and says, "Don't leave me, Mama" when I drop him off at pre-school with his teacher, Miss Nichols. Yes, I want my kids to learn. But, as a mom of elementary school students, I am focused less on academics. I want them to love the learning process, feel good about themselves, experience passion, humor, fun, compassion, and empathy. I want a teacher who will wipe away tears and who will appreciate a good superhero eggplant story. If they can fit some math in there, too, that'd be great.
So, Miss Gillies and Miss Nichols, no worries if you're behind on correcting papers or starting the rainforest project. Feel free to ask me to help in the classroom anytime. And please forgive me if I am late with the book order form. Know that I am trying my hardest, but I've got a lot to learn.
Amy Rodriguez is a mom of two spirited kids, physical therapist, writer, and former English teacher living in Belmont, Massachusetts. Amy has always been type-A, and she must admit that motherhood has rocked her organized world. There aren't any performance reviews to check off accomplishments and, if there were, she wouldn't be checking off too much. Writing helps her feel better. More of her published work can be read at her website: www.parentingontheloose.com
A Note from Cassie Premo Steele:
I was in my little creativity studio while my ten-year-old daughter and her friend (whose mother had a meeting to attend) were listening to the new Selena Gomez CD out in the back yard, and I took the relative peace of this Columbus-Day-of-no-school-but-mamas-still-have-work-to-do moment to sit down and read your essay.
At first I was reading with my "Birthing the Mother Writer" columnist eye -- noticing where dashes should be commas, where paragraphs could be broken up, etc. -- and then somewhere in the middle of the essay, Selena's song blended with the girls' voices outside ("Gonna follow my in-TU-i-tion!") and I was transformed by the bridge of their voices and your words from a columnist to a mama.
My eyes were no longer filled with judgment but tears.
Yes, I have sat with those piles of papers, not just on Tuesday nights, which is "Parent Pocket" night, but whenever plans changed -- for the field trip, for the group project, for the chorus practice. Yes, I have been the mama whose daughter was afraid and being bullied. Yes, I have been the mother, glass of wine in hand and ready to serve dinner, who screams, "Your report is due tomorrow?!?! Why didn't you tell me at 3:00 instead of going out to play with the neighbor kids?!?!" And yes, I want my daughter to have a teacher who is as compassionate as she is smart.
Amy, I am happy to accept your essay. It says exactly what Mother Bees and Teacher Bees need to hear. We are all trying with our tiny beelike steps. We are all learning where the flowers are. Sometimes we sting. And sometimes we make sweet honey.
All best wishes,