Every parent and teacher has to face it at least twice a year: conferences. Cue the horror movie music.
During my first year as a certified 3rd grade teacher, I spent a lot of time worrying over how conducive my classroom environment was to learning and how to present grades and portfolios to parents when it came time. Yet, when the week of conferences finally did roll around, I found myself worrying about things like my breath being fresh enough and if the crease in my pants had been ironed.
We were given 3 half-days of school to squeeze in every parent, as we aimed for 100% participation. Most of my conferences went by like the breeze. Parents were showing up on time, all grades and student work was reviewed, questions were answered, parents walked away happy and powerful with new information. It was seemingly successful.
Then a parent of a child with special needs showed up. Now, I'm not talking the kind of special needs I had seen in the classroom where I spent the previous two years as a teaching assistant. It was a classroom where you experienced students from all over the spectrum of needs: autism, SDD, EBD, ADHD, medicated, speech or hearing impaired, seizures. Those were the children who when they learned to tie their shoe or cut a straight line, we as teachers came together to hug and cry tears of joy because our babies had been damned determined to work at such tasks until they succeeded.
The child whose mother was now entering my classroom was one who wouldn't know what a day at school was if it tapped him on the shoulder and screamed "booga, booga" in his face. It's probably the closest I'll come to encountering one of those ferrel children you read about in psychology books. His pinball-machine energy couldn't be matched by 10 teachers hyped up on espressos and Red Bull. If you tried to correct his behavior, say, when he pushed a little girl down at recess, his eyes would widen with lunacy, his face inch toward yours, and he would run off laughing. Then you would lose 10-15 minutes trying to chase him down or paging the office to send someone running after him. It was enough to make any teacher an alcoholic or chain smoker.
First impressions say a thousand words about a parent upon meeting them, but I had met with this mother once before and my guess for her "appearance" could be that she had instantly grown comfortable with me. Her hair was slicked straight up into a ponytail that exploded with uncombed curls beyond a worn rubber-band. She was curvy where a woman should be, but little had been left to the imagination with the lack in length of her white denim shorts. The most remarkable part of her ensemble was the light pink baby-tee that featured the words, "I'M THE ONE YOUR PARENTS WANRED YOU ABOUT" and a laughing monkey standing next to the "I'M." I've met with parents who haven't had the chance to apply make-up or find a shirt that covered a tattoo, but this outfit was a statement. What other shirts had she passed off as not good enough to wear to a meeting with her child's teacher before choosing this one?
In my mind, I tried to give the woman the benefit of the doubt. Could it be that she had awoken just moments before she had to be at the school and this was the closest thing to her bed? Maybe it was her equivalent of granny panties on wash day? But neither would explain why she was wearing 8 different gum ball machine rings on her fingers. Of course, she could have fallen asleep wearing them. I began to wonder what I would find if I looked in her purse. Probably 8 gum ball machine eggs, a tube of watermelon Lip Smackers, and a scratch-off ticket worth $5 she'd won but not redeemed (which would have more than paid for the rings). To my dismay, she wasn't carrying a purse.
The conference went on like any other, even though this one required a resource teacher who saw the child for a portion of the school day. We had data to share with the mother about her child's wild behavior and suffering grades, to which she responded with something about how he does the same thing at home and that he's been to the doctor about it. She even mentioned how he was prescribed medication for hyperactivity. Medication was something we hadn't been made aware of, and we asked why he hadn't been taking it. Her explanation fit better than her T-shirt: "I just don't think to give it to him."
Not being able to afford it, I could understand. Having a work schedule that flip flops between day and night shift that would interfere with dispensing consistency, that would be plausible. But here I was imagining an evening at home where mom thinks to herself, "My child has been spinning like a whirling dervish for the last six and a half hours..." and then chooses to ignore it.
"We have a clinic here that could help with that," the resource teacher explained to her. "You could bring in the medication and the nurse could give him his meds at the same time every day."
"That's OK. I'll try to be better about it," came her answer. Slap…my…forehead...
No line of logic or explanation of our nurse's credentials was going to make this parent want to bring in a bottle of pills because it wouldn't be a one-time run. She would have to do it monthly, and it would mean that she would have to relinquish the responsibility. As much as we want the child to behave at school, it's unreasonable to expect any mother to turn everything over to us. Even the ones who own vanity tees that answer so many questions about their very own child's conduct.
Soon the conference was over, the vanity tee was out of my eyesight, and I was on to the next parent. I realize I will always have a challenging parent here or there to face at conference time--the unpunctuals, the no-shows, the cell-phone answerers, the screamers, the wearers of too much perfume, the untrustworthies. But this job is one that produces memories that are truly good, bad, and dreadfully grotesque, and I have 23 years ahead of me to make more of them.