Every year, we kick off Thanksgiving week with two days of conferences. The kids get the entire week off, and the teachers spend hours sitting at tables and having, oftentimes, the same conversations over and over again. These chats are often filled with euphemisms for what actually needs to be said. We’ve all joked about what it truly means when a grade-school teacher says a child is “high energy”; likewise, when we say your kid “has some trouble keeping his phone put away during class,” what we really mean is that you’re lucky we haven’t ripped it out of his sweaty palms, hurled it to the floor, and squashed it with our boot.
Many teachers—more now than ever, it seems—are anti-conferences. For some, it’s the fact that they’re paid for two days during which they might see seven or eight parents. For others, they gripe that the parents of students that really ought to visit don’t: the majority of guests have children with decent grades and are there doing their parental duty, just checking in, or in the case of many honors-level students, finding out why on earth Junior has, horror of all horrors, a B.
In my first few years of teaching, conferences terrified me. That was likely due to a few specific incidents. One mother waited until greetings were out of the way to begin screaming at me, literally, about how long it had taken me to return an essay to her daughter, who was sitting beside her. Another requested a special meeting with counselors and an administrator, during which she inquired if I had kids of my own and how long I’d been teaching. She used my responses to support her theory that I didn’t handle boys well and was obviously teaching just to the girls. Despite the fact that three other staff members in the room had boys who were earning A’s in my class (a couple of whom hung out after school in my room), no one spoke up on my behalf.
But in the last few years, I’ve been able to find some enjoyment in conferences: from a sociological standpoint, they’re riveting. I’m a bit too distracted to engage in the amount of people-watching I’d like to—I tend to be fairly booked—but the fact that conferencing has finally become mundane for me (and, to be honest, the fact that I’m far more confident now and would never allow a screaming, psycho parent to remain at my table for very long) means more opportunities to ponder the strange worlds that my students come from each day.
One common specimen is the concerned parent whose kids won’t talk to her. And it’s not just the kid with failing grades: sometimes I’m shocked that the most respectful, high-achieving students in class apparently go home and shut their bedroom doors. I’m saddened when a parent asks what we’ve been working on all year or whether their child has friends in class. These are details that shouldn’t be news in late November, but either the parent is afraid to push, or her kid refuses to answer. Once in a while, a parent at his wit’s end will even ask for advice. Last year, I told one father the story of my dad, who, at his own wit’s end during my sophomore year, angrily declared that he didn’t care anymore about what grades I got. It was at that moment that I felt a great weight had been lifted—perhaps rebelling through academics would no longer give me the attention I sought—and decided that I would do better for myself, and I did. The moral of my story was that this father, whose demeanor could make the most self-assured sophomore feel defensive, should back off a bit and see what his daughter would do. He seemed skeptical.
Another father this year showed up with James, a senior with a 52% in class. James kept slipping his earbud into his ear during the conference. Three times his dad snapped at him to remove it. The fourth time the kid absent-mindedly inserted the earbud, the father hollered that if it happened again, he would rip it out and throw it away. It was an odd interaction, and the boy’s actions reminded me of a student I had last year who couldn’t go through class without using his phone, ever. When I say couldn’t, I mean that if I was to take the phone from him, he would literally begin trembling. One time, he started crying. So I’ve seen this pitiful and oddly profound connection to electronics before among my students, but the strange part was that James has never had a problem with his earbuds in my class. I tell him once to remove them, and he obliges, and they stay out. I wondered what sort of psychological battle was occurring at my table—or within James’ head—that led him to be compulsive to the point that his father sounded ready to harm him.
On the other end of the spectrum is the parent who loves his kid to pieces but forgets the parenting part. One popped into my classroom last week with his son, who has an F because he doesn’t turn in work. After I mentioned a particular assignment, Greg said, “I swear I turned that in.”
“I swear you didn’t,” I replied. He leafed through his notebook, found it, and handed it to me, five weeks late. His father giggled.
“Greg,” I said, “I don’t know how else to help you. At some point, you need to take some responsibility yourself. I repeatedly announce upcoming deadlines in class, I write them on the board, and I update my website each day with that information. I don’t know what else to do other than sending a messenger pigeon to your house.”
“I’d actually prefer you try the pigeon,” Greg answered. His father laughed hysterically.
Greg didn’t come to conferences, but his father swung by my table. He sat right beside me, where he munched from my bowl of Reese’s peanutbutter cups while repeating how dang smart his son is. “Sometimes too smart for his own good, in fact.” Yeah, right. Then he said, “Remember when he thought he turned in that assignment and found it right there in his notebook? Ha, ha! That sure was funny!” I’m no psychologist, but I suppose if a kid’s absent-mindedness provides comic relief around the house, there is little motivation to change.
One set of parents arrived curious about their son’s grade. A glance at his report revealed that his essay score was atrocious. Typically, I have trouble recalling the specifics that might cause a low essay grade (which is why having students attend conferences is convenient—I can turn the tables), but this time, in Hal’s absence, I was able to recall the problem. “Hal was arguing in his paper that soccer should not be considered sport,” I began, and his family (there were siblings present) burst out laughing. “One of his major supports for his argument was that soccer is not an American sport and was brought here by immigrants. He said that in America, we should play sports for white people.” They stared at me, grinning. “So you see, once you’re using racism to support your argument, that’s going to significantly lower your score in Ideas and Content.” Again, the family cracked up. After catching her breath, Hal’s mom explained that it’s just that “Hal likes to think he’s black on the inside—that’s why it’s so funny!”
“If he were really ‘black on the inside,’” I countered, “I would think he’d have a better grasp of why his argument could be offensive.” And they continued chuckling and shaking their heads at the thought of their silly Hal.
Parts of conferences end up being redeeming. I was in the middle of talking with one couple when a large woman, who looked exactly like Kathleen Turner and reeked of cigarettes, interrupted and asked if she could borrow my pen. She wasn’t referring to the one in front of her on the table, but the one I had in my hand. I wordlessly handed it to her and continued my conversation with the others. After a few moments, Kathleen Turner said thanks and hurled the pen across the table in my direction. The other parents looked surprised by her demeanor, and I silently dreaded my upcoming appointment with her. But lo and behold, she turned out to be one of the nicest parents I encountered this year. She didn’t have any questions, for she knew her daughter’s grade, but she just had to meet me, for her “daughter’s eyes sparkle when she talks” about my class. She was one of the rare parents that stops in primarily to thank us for all we do.Others are less certain about their mission, perhaps setting foot in their child’s school for the first time. One woman, shuffling around with the aid of a walker, was confused about the layout and how to find her son’s teachers. She apologetically approached my table for help, and I spotted my name on her son’s schedule. I introduced myself, and we had a long conversation, much of which was about the ins-and-outs of the school day (she wasn’t aware of how many classes students attend each day or what we do in Creative Writing, for instance) and the rest about her son. He has, perhaps, the oddest hairdo I’ve ever seen, wears enough plastic beads around his neck to rival Mr. T’s gold chains, and has bright red, skinny jeans full of holes. He ran away from his dad’s home last year, was on his own and homeless in Seattle for several months (I know this from a personal narrative he read aloud), and happens to be one of the coolest kids and best writers in my class.
With over 200 students, it is difficult to know them all well enough to be able to give personalized, genuine feedback to their parents, especially this early in the year. But when I’m able to do so, it’s the best part of conferences for me. Revealing that a kid has finally pulled his grade up is pleasing, but telling a parent that their child is a compassionate, creative person, or that his enthusiasm and sense of humor bring joy to me and to his fellow students, is something they won’t often hear anywhere else.
And on the week of Thanksgiving, that rare opportunity to send a message home—one that won’t stay crumpled at the bottom of backpacks or get “lost” in the mail, but one that actually reaches the hungry ears of anxious parents—is a blessing.