Just this morning I received a reminder text from my son’s school that Parent-Teacher Conferences are scheduled next week. In the best Pavlovian tradition, my mind immediately recalled a couple lines from Walt Whitman:

As the time draws nigh, glooming, a cloud,
A dread beyond, of I know not what, darkens me.

In case you don’t understand my ambivalence, and lest you think I’m being overly dramatic, I will explain. In the beginning, when I was young and naïve, a newly minted mom so-to-speak, I cheerfully anticipated every opportunity to meet with my children’s teachers. I still vividly recall my first Parent-Teacher night.

As I approached the school, mounted the front steps and opened the industrial-strength security doors, I was happy almost to the point of giddiness. I anticipated what I was sure would be a delightful conversation. The teacher and I would review some sample work and test results, but that wouldn’t take long, and then we’d share some amusing stories all featuring my intelligent and charming son. We’d wrap things up quickly, pausing a couple moments for me to graciously accept her invitation to help host the school’s upcoming symposium on parenting.

Our conference was nothing like I’d imagined it would be. Nor was the one after that, or the one after that. In fact, you could say that I have been the one being schooled all these years. What I have actually learned is not to expect anything from year to year. I was just as likely to hear praise and receive commendations as I was to meet with silent (and sometimes not so silent) condemnation and recommendations.  

I am now on the tail end of raising six children, and while these highs and lows have kept me alert and engaged, I feel a desire to pay it forward and share some hard-won lessons with you, possibly sparing you some humiliation:   

Dress nicely  

Think Office Casual, if you will. If, for example,  little Katie has gained a permanent spot at the time-out desk, and you show up wearing a color-coordinated ensemble, hair combed and if possible carrying a day planner or iPhone,  then you will appear to be a reasonable adult with whom the teacher can negotiate. On the other hand, if you arrive frazzled, carrying an over-tired toddler and looking like you just finished putting out an oven fire, little Katie’s fate for the year is set.

Know your child’s name and the teacher’s too, if possible  

This seems obvious, but I know that after a day of non-stop conferencing, it is possible for the teacher or the parent to lose track of where you are and who is being discussed.  This problem can be alleviated when school districts refrain from scheduling high school, middle school and elementary conferences on the same day.  It is also helpful to have a spouse who is willing and/or able to share in the conference experience, but we won’t get into that at this time.

Bring reading material

Preferably something that appears intellectual, so hide your cozy murder mystery inside the dust cover of “Moby Dick” or depending on your school, “Atlas Shrugged” Despite all efforts to map out an efficient and optimal plan, the conferencing parent will eventually get stuck waiting in a long line. I find that taking along a good book helps me channel all my pent-up energy.  This is energy I will later utilize as I try to convince this same teacher that pinning Steven’s homework to his shirt is still a viable option even though he’s now in grade ten.

A good pair of eyeglasses makes all the difference  

One does not want to discover that after waiting in line for 23 minutes there are two teachers with the same last name and that is why the drill team instructor has never heard of Wesley. While this might give you cause for celebration, you have now wasted 23 precious minutes when you could have been sitting in your actual line, which now winds out the door. Actually, in the effort of full disclosure here, I have to admit that I occasionally use wait time to people-watch and the glasses are useful then too. Better yet, bring your sunglasses so no one knows where you’re looking.  

Accept that your child has a public life that can be quite different from his or her home life

I first discovered this when all my daughter’s middle school teachers complimented me on her sweet and charming disposition, while my son’s fifth-grade teacher voiced concern over how withdrawn he was. At home, my daughter’s angst over suffering the fools around her was tangible. She’d recently campaigned to paint her bedroom black and I had, for a brief time, worried that she was suffering from some rare optical disease because her eyes rolled every time I walked into the room. Meanwhile, her brother kept the family in stitches with his jokes and antics. Go figure.

Above all else, keep this acorn in mind: it will all be just fine  

When I first started out on this journey, all I did was worry. Was my child having a good educational experience? Were we creating an environment that was nutritious, loving and nurturing?  Was s/he making enough friends? Did s/he have too many friends at the expense of his/her education? What about the national deficit? Okay, I still worry about the national deficit, but with time I have worked through all the other problems. The kids are turning out just fine, thank you, and are, in fact, thriving. Also, because of some dedicated teachers, they’ve learned a great deal. I have rarely met a teacher who didn’t actually care about my child at least a little and most of them care a lot.     

So, I’ve learned to worry a little less and believe in things a little more, to relax, somewhat, and to enjoy the process, to have confidence in my efforts and faith in my kids. Actually, another verse comes to mind, this time a lyric from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.