Sometimes I know where they work by their clothes– the shirt with embroidered words, the scrubs. I fall in love with about three-quarters of them.  They are so eager to prove that they love their children, although no such proof is required.  They are eager to prove to me that they care about education, that they preach responsibility and organization.  They want me to know this, so that I will love their children.  I can’t say, “I have to love all of them.”  I have to sort of pretend that these moments of conversation will ensure special attentiveness.  I have to affirm and betray them all.  “Please call me if he misses any assignments,” they say.  “Please call me if she misbehaves at all.”

I nod, knowing that I probably will not.  I grade three or four hundred assignments a week, discipline kids every hour, and I believe most conflicts are best handled at school.  School is its own world, with its own rules, and they regularly contradict the rules of family and neighborhood.  If a kid doesn’t build a separate life at school, she won’t have the bud of a self that will grow into a separate individual in college.  She will be stunted, just a sprout of one neighborhood, one family, and not her own seedling.

At parent-teacher conferences, I try to listen and ask questions more than talk. Often I will just sit there while a parent reams a kid.  There’s a long, repetitive, heartfelt lecture that the kid is completely tuning out.  I watch kids set their jaws tight, fantasizing about clocking the grown-up, running out to a brand-new SUV with four platinum credit cards, and driving straight to Miami.  My frozen expression is supposed to suggest simultaneous disapproval and sympathy.

I tell a confused, worried parent, “He hasn’t found his gift yet.”  I ask the quiet “F” kid what she wants to study in college.  I learn who the perfectionist parents are– they circle the two homework zeroes that brought the kid to a disappointing “B.”  The “A” kids beam at me, and I beam at them.

I try to put grandmas and dads and aunties and sisters at ease.  Our relationship is awkward– both of us with power over the other, both of us with knowledge of the other that is second-hand.  The students write intimate details of their families, and I read that.  The students see me at my most exhausted, my most impatient. I’m always afraid people will think the English teacher is a language snob.  I try to stay informal, to joke.  I always remark on family resemblances.  I always tell them if their kid reminds me of someone I love– like the kid with my grandfather’s name.

The teachers who are parents always have something on me. They can always say, “I know how it is.”  I can never say that.  I only know the agony of loving my younger siblings, and I can only remember my parents’ infatuation with me, to have any idea how desperate they feel.  While I know the weight of carrying the hundred students, I get to release them to the winds every May.  Every parent-teacher night, I feel more like a priest than a teacher, listening to confessions and promises to reform.  All the priest can do is listen and bless.

4 thoughts on “Confessions

  1. A very intimate look at the dynamic of parent-teacher conferences.

    I remember my first interaction with a parent and feeling like a fraud, like at any moment they were going to figure out I was in over my head.

    The conversation concerned a specific misbehavior of their child; within minutes I felt that the parent must have harbored similar apprehensions – not wanting to be found out a fraud as well.

    By the end of the coversation, she asked if I had any advice on how to deal with the problem; as a young teacher, the only response – perhaps, the default – I could summon was, “Well, maybe you should talk to her about what happened.”

    Uncertainty is a major force in human relations.

    [As a complete stranger, I feel obligated to introduce myself. My name is Ben and I am an English teacher in Armenia. I found your site through a comment you had left on a NYTimes article.]

    1. Thanks for reading, and your thoughtful comments.

      Over the years, I’ve found that the uncertainty I felt as a beginning teacher was not as scary as it seems. Sometimes it’s even better to reveal your questions and the different possibilities floating around in your head in those meetings. It took me time to feel confident enough to be that open, though. It seems like a lot of the time, all parents want from me is a supportive listener. It doesn’t always feel like I’m helping, but I think just a compassionate ear can be helpful for a parent– especially a parent of a teenager.

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