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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The Final Curtain

Try as I might, and much to PF’s amusement, I have never managed to avoid shedding an emotional tear or ten when faced with a pint-sized line-up of singing pumpkins, wise men or flowers at primary school events. I’m a soppy so-and-so, and being reminded that my kids are growing up way too fast kicks me viciously in the lacrimals each and every time.

Needless to say, there is nothing delicate or feminine about an MM going into emotional melt-down. Unlike the delicate mums who roll their eyes towards the ceiling to subdue the solitary tear in each rimmelled eye, my face generally crumples up like a 2CV in a motorway pile-up. I then reach into my pocket for a tissue, realise that I used up the last one to clean my hands after I dripped diesel on my fingers at the petrol pump, and end up with a choice between my sleeve or a vintage shopping list.

Kleenex logo

Kleenex: my trusty sponsor for thirteen years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This year I was proud to get away with red eyes and a large lump in my throat. Thirteen years of primary school for my children had flashed by in what felt like the blink of an eye, and before I knew what had hit me, I was in the playground for the last junior school concert I would attend for one of my offspring.

Wonder Woman had already set up residence in the front row with her groupies, and was impatiently drumming her perfect nails on her video recorder (which, needless to say, had both a fully charged battery and a memory card). I will miss seeing her and her immaculately groomed kids. For those of you who don’t know her, Wonder Woman is the misunderstood matriarch of the maternal mafia. She’s the one who lurks by the refreshments stand at the school fête to police the access to her organic carrot cake. When you battle up the hill to school on your battered old egg-beater of a bike, Wonder Woman is the one who overtakes you with a sadistic, self-satisfied smirk, comfortably perched on her electric broomstick bike as she glides up the hill like a sinister, modern-day version of Mary Poppins. And at the concert, Wonder Woman was the one who had attacked her kid with a pair of curling tongs, making her look like a crossbreed of Orphan Annie and a Crufts contestant.

A hybrid of Orphan Annie and a Crufts contestant.

As I can see you wondering, here’s a hybrid of Orphan Annie and a Crufts contestant, courtesy of Little My and Smelly Dog.

The show began. A member of staff started battering at her glockenspiel as if it had done her an injustice in an earlier life. The beaming music teacher gesticulated wildly in front of the class, and stabbed her finger energetically at Annie Cruft, who obligingly broke into a warbling, off-key rendition of a Polynesian lullaby.

It took me a while to spot Little My in the sea of costumed children. My daughter was hiding in the back row, swaying imperceptibly in her Hawaiian dancer costume. My throat tightened as I glumly realised that this moment was soon to be archived in the family records under “Primary”. A wave of emotion welled up in me, but it was nipped in the bud by the wonderful sight of a miniature Speedy Gonzales. He was singing half-heartedly in the second row, gazing into oblivion from the shade of his sombrero as he absent-mindedly ferreted in his nostril in search of an afternoon snack.

The show was fantastic  – except for one vahiné who ended up in tears when her safety-pin let her (and her grass skirt) down mid-tamuré, it all went smoothly. The children had come a long way since the infant school gigs where baby squirrels seized up in a panic attack, dropped their papier-mâché nuts and ran off screaming into the arms of embarrassed mummy squirrels in the back row.

Speedy Gonzales (film)

Now you know what Speedy gets up to under that hat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The spectators were fun viewing, too. A small child danced in a happy trance in the no-mans land of trailing cables and maracas between the pupils and the parental posse. An adult tutted, turned and stared malevolently at the kid who was kicking the back of his seat.  Beaming grandparents took photographs. A child loudly announced that he wanted to pee and stumbled his way along the row of seats with his embarrassed father, who tripped over the tripod of the man who was filming the show just when he’d made it through the jungle of legs.

As the cast lined up to a standing parental ovation, babies wailed and grandmothers wiped away proud tears. Speedy Gonzales wiped his finger on his trousers. My face tried to fold into maternal origami, and I swear I saw Wonder Woman rolling her mascara-ed eyes towards the ceiling to catch the tears. Annie Cruft waved enthusiastically to the audience with one hand and readjusted her knickers with the other as the curtain fell on my Primary parenting years. It was time for us to start a new chapter in life….. but only after one last slice of Wonder Woman’s organic carrot cake.