The Fear Factor: Surviving Parent-Teacher Evenings.

In December I have a parent-teacher evening to attend at the local comp. The word “unenthusiastic” would be an understatement: I am now contemplating the acquisition of a survival bag, brandy flask and stock of cookies for the occasion.

These marathons generally take up to three hours, and use up all my annual stock of British calm. The system is simple: each teacher sits in a room alone. Parents are instructed to write their names on a list outside the rooms for each teacher they want to see, without leaving any lines free. Meetings last five minutes – it’s a bit like speed-dating, but without the romance. The only saving grace for most mothers is getting to see the sports teacher, who is generally fit in every sense of the word.

MM, Ready to join the fray. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

MM, Ready to join the fray. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

If parent-teacher evenings were a TV show, they would be a combination of Benny Hill and Fear Factor. The doors open at the designated time, and parents flood in as if it was Black Friday at Harrod’s. The sooner you are on the lists, the sooner you can get home, and all the parents know it. You chase through the rabbit warren of corridors on different floors to find all the rooms, and when you have written your name on the relevant lists, you pelt back to your first appointment with thirty seconds to spare, only to discover that your name has been struck through because you were not there. This leaves you with a mile-long list of names before the next availability – close to breakfast time. So you chase on to your next appointment, and see that the parent before you has not turned up, so you have been struck off the list again. Get the gist? Bis repetita, ad nauseam, all evening.

Parents share their strategies in hushed whispers. I have tried several. None of them work, and after calculation my mean average time after eight years in comprehensive school corridors is still closer to three hours than two, whatever the strategy used.

This year I observed a new trend in parental strategy: teamwork. Organized couples arrived at five o’clock sharp, equipped with back packs, sports shoes and mobile phones. They shared the list of teachers out equally, pecked each other lovingly on the lips then checked their watches and shot off in separate directions. I suspect that they also had detailed maps, army rations, hydration packs and walkie-talkie wrist watches gleaned from their kids’ cereal packets. Yet three hours later they hadn’t seen the physics teacher, either.

MM prepared twin rockets to send Wondeure Woomane into space, should she be unwise enough to attempt jumping the queue.

MM prepared twin rockets to send Wondeure Woomane into space, should she be unwise enough to attempt jumping the queue. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Then there is the bolder strategy of queue pushing. The most wily queue-pusher is my nemesis, Wondeure Woomane (aka WW). She generally has a file under her arm, and strides purposefully down the corridor like she’s lived there all her life. This confuses everyone long enough for her to sashay into the room and take a seat, whether or not it is her turn. Taking twice the allotted time, she briefs the teacher on how to get the best out of her over-achieving genius. When she finally breezes past the growling posse of parents at the door, their faces betray their hope that her homemade salt dough pendant will swing twice round her neck and throttle her on her way down the corridor.

I should have learned by now, though. I have been attending school meetings with Wondeure Woomane for 15 years. By the time my third contribution to the Franco-British entente cordiale hit infant school, I had become one of those war-scarred veterans who sat in the corner muttering Yoda-like incantations as WW machine-gunned the teacher with her desiderata. Were the school dinners organic? Would the parent whose child had a headlouse breeding facility on his head please put him into quarantine? Oh, and could the  child who had permanently borrowed her offspring’s Himalayan yack wool gloves please return them? She would then get stuck into suggesting everything from vegetable plots to edible paint, class visits to the swimming pool and library, and the organisation of week-long school trips to learn how to build teepees and name an insect at fifty paces.

Wondeure Woomane making suggestions at the PTA.

Wondeure Woomane making suggestions at the PTA meeting. Image: Wikipedia commons.

However, the enthusiasm that Wondeure Woomane showed at school meetings mysteriously waned when the teacher came up trumps with activities for our offspring and asked for helping hands a few weeks later. The excuses she came up with were lamer than Napoleon attempting a handstand. I learned to grit my teeth as she whined that she couldn’t make herself available for the very school outings she had demanded, casting a condescending eye over the other mums then simpering « I’m sorry, I can’t come… I work… » as she gazed flirtatiously up at the teacher though lowered eyelashes. This left we lesser maternal mortals the privilege of accompanying a busload of three year-olds to the swimming pool in the depths of winter. The only exception she ever made was for the end of school trip to meet professional fire fighters. I can’t imagine why.

So wish me luck, guys… and if you read something in the paper about a pedant who choked on her pendant, it wasn’t me. Honest.

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Stone-Age Mamma and the Mystery of Everybody Else’s Parents.

If I rubbed my teapot one day and the Yorkshire Brew genie popped out to offer me three wishes, it’d be easy. My first wish would be to kick cancer’s butt off the face of the earth. The second to pay off my mortgage. And the third would be to finally meet “Everybody Else’s Parents.”

Our kids all have the same friend, although bizarrely the gender and age varies enormously. Said friend is called “Everybody Else.” You may have met Everybody Else, but never his or her mysterious, generous and philanthropic genitors. Everyone Else lives in a childhood Nirvana – a teenager’s heaven where his or her every wish is the adult’s desire. Strapped for cash? Need a ride to the cinema? Feel an insatiable desire to respond to that Pavlovian reflex set off by the announcement of a new Play Station? Look no further: Everybody Else’s parents are ready and willing to grant their child’s every wish.

These parents are the summom bonum of parenting. They are an ode to educational endeavor; pioneers of parental prowess. They are in synchrony with their kids – so much so, in fact, that they seem to know what their offspring need before they even know it themselves. Walk into the Everybody Else household, and weep: these guys are in osmosis to such an extent that they are inches from melting into a pulsating, lime-green pool of happiness.

Caveman Couple
MM and PF, stone-aged parents, on their way to the butchers to buy a pound of mammoth for dinner (Photo credit: San Diego Shooter)

Now for a little history. Everybody Else’s Parents have been out doing us mere mortals in the parenting stakes since Neolithic times. At that time, PF and MM’s forbearers still had callouses on their knuckles from ambling along on all fours and forcing their kids to be self-respecting, independent hunter-gatherers who checked the pelt of the bear for parasites before they attempted to kill it with their home-made daggers. In the cave next-door, however, Everybody Else’s parents were already at the cutting-edge of flintstone parenting. They were the first to have a cart with square wheels and a matching turbo-charged dino parked outside their cave entrance. They ordered take-out mammoth every weekend and sent their kids to flint-chipping workshops at the local geek’s cave, dressed in the latest designer bearskins. The entire family watched blockbusters like “Menhir Black” on their stone tablets, and were the first to tote the stone-age ancestor of Steve Job’s technological wizardry – the iStone.

Throughout the ages, MM and PF’s ancestors kicked out against consumerism as a basis for parenting, and refused to keep up with Everybody Else’s Parents. Perfection being in the eye of the beholder, our creations are only too happy to point out that although we have progressed to communicating, standing upright and eating with cutlery, we have not evolved as much as they would have liked.

The iStone, little-known ancestor of the iPhone.

I have been measured with Everybody Else’s parental yardstick since my kids were old enough to clamour their indignation about our parental decisions. We are the most unhip, untrendy, tight-fisted, screwed-up old parents in the whole damned universe. If Victorian parents existed in France, that would be us, with a twist of Dickensian malevolence for good measure (I have a real Miss Havisham side to me, letting them see their cake but not eat it, whereas PF is a more Fagin type, forcing his kids to help out around our family hovel).

Now. Everybody Else is a charming kid, despite an upbringing with all the laxity of a eucalyptus suppository. He is never tired, despite the fact that his ultra-cool parents allow him to go out drinking late on school days, and always does his homework late at night in his bed because they allow him to exercise his thumbs on the Play Station soon as he gets home until well after dinner. Everybody Else’s girfriend has been sleeping over for the last three years and has even been encouraged her to come and live with them.

In comparison, of course, we do not cut the mustard.

We do not stand by the door jangling our keys when our kids want to go out to a friend’s house, whereas Everybody Else’s parents are generally scratching at the door like beagles that have picked up on the scent of game as soon as their teen twitches a Prada-clad toe. My general reaction is to ask them to look down, and show them the cheapest and healthiest method of transport ever: feet.

Beef Up Foreign Food Inspection

Trying to convince MM that frozen IKEA desserts are edible (Photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

Food is another bone of contention. Whilst I am no Nigella Lawson, I scrupulously read the ingredients on the rare cakes and biscuits I buy. The rule of thumb is that if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. This puts my children in a different world to Everybody Else, who is rumoured to open the kitchen cupboard on his return from school to choose from overflowing shelves of chocolate, snacks and sweets that no doubt glow in the dark. Everybody Else’s Parents allow their kids to slob out in the rooms alone and eat an entire family packet of M&M’s each until three in the morning, whereas we round up all our kids and watch a film or a documentary together. Shock. Horror.

I have kept an eye out for these parents at every parent-teacher meeting, and casually questioned the genitors of other teens, but to no avail. Everybody Else’s parents never show up. I have a possible explanation for this – as they selflessly fund the most recent technology, driving lessons, cars, generous allowances and designer clothes for their fringe-flicking progeny, they obviously work 24/7 – they are probably dental surgeons or lawyers by day, with a sideline in bank-robbing at night.

So until the Yorkshire Brew genie proves otherwise, I will presume that Everybody Else’s Parents are as mythical as the legendary Prince Charming. But that’s another story, folks…

Life without literacy.

Reading and writing have always been as essential to me as love, laughter, oxygen and food. It is part and parcel of everyday life; I cannot imagine living without this ability. Life would be hell.

So when I discovered that a friend was illiterate, my stomach overturned. I asked her how she managed. Imagine a world where you have no idea what is written on the paper that you pull out of that envelope. On that packet. How can you live without this essential tool for communication?

My hedgehog book sits beside my bed. A meeting between a child and a novel creates beautiful things.

My hedgehog book sits beside my bed. A meeting between a child and a novel creates beautiful things.

The answer is dependence. That terrible state I never want to be in is her everyday situation. Her husband reads the notes from school to her, and her daughter reads the homework instructions out loud so that she can understand. Her daughter is sweet, understanding and fun. Like her mum. She reads for her mum. Her mother trusts her to tell her the truth. A delicate equation of trust and dependency between a mother and daughter that will continue for as long as they need each other, in a world where a child is the eyes of her parent, reading the news before passing it on. When she grows older, will she filter out the bad stuff, like we do as parents for our children before they know how to read? The necessary role reversal that had occurred so naturally shocked me.

But there is no firewall, nothing and no one to protect her if one day those helping hands suddenly disappeared. This dependence shocks me; how can illiteracy still exist in this day and age? The clock is ticking, and nothing has changed. Time that could be used to make things better is running through the hourglass.

I tried to motivate her. A simultaneous desire to hug her and shake her out of her lethargy and into action. Sign up for classes. You’re so young. Be independent. Rely on yourself. Be proud. Do it. Prove to yourself that you love yourself, and if you can’t do it for yourself, do it for the sake of your daughter. Please. Don’t rely on others for something so essential. Respect yourself. React. In this day and age, it is wrong to accept this kind of situation as a fatality.

I have suddenly realised that like so many other things in life, like love, health and happiness, things that I had always considered a basic staple of life are a privilege. That although we grew up in the same world, at the same time, she didn’t get the same chances as me. I have taken a real slap on the face. I am thankful for having parents who refused to let me let go, who cocooned me in a world full of books, literacy, library visits, who encouraged me and pushed me to never be dependent on anyone else. Education is a right. But it is also a privilege.