WEDNESDAY: Meet the Teacher Night

BY ANNE BURLAKOFF

Copyright is held by the author.

THE OLD gymnasium is good at absorbing the sounds of piercing whistle blasts, rousing cheers and shouts from teenaged jocks. But the hundreds of voices currently engaged in discussing, pleading, explaining and making promises, all acceptable forms of bartering for marks, echo off the walls and every hard surface inside. The leaky walls allow crafty currents to sneak in and carry the brittle words high into the rafters, where they fragment into syllables, hovering just below the roof before gently wafting their way back down as single consonants and vowels, each distinct as a snowflake. Sensing movement in the air above me, I casually brush the top of my head with my fingertips but whatever detritus is present is invisible. The woman across from me hasn’t noticed. Her mousy brown hair, shot through with grey, falls across her tired face as she continues her monologue, eyes downcast and voice pitched too low for me to catch any more than one out of two or three words. I cup my hands behind my ears and lean toward her.

Normal conversation requires an ability to constantly interpret ever-changing combinations and permutations of meaning, nuance and inflection, and to manufacture and deliver an appropriate response without too much delay. Even in the most favourable of environments, my brain requires excessive amounts of energy for activities that, for most people, seem both effortless and pleasurable. Sustained conversation, even with a good friend, inevitably becomes work. I tend to lose focus and become distracted. Here, the background noise and constant motion makes my head pound within minutes. I try to stay on track by keeping my eyes on her face, but my mind betrays me, cataloguing bristly chin hairs, knobbly nose cartilage, and bizarrely shaped temporary lip sculptures forming word after word that might as well be jabberwocky. I look down at my desk but the action in my peripheral vision grabs my attention instead.

To my left, a mutual love-in is going on. A suburban mother with expensive hair, her butterscotch Coach purse matching her boots and cashmere car coat, is clearly delighted that her son had the good taste to select a handsome yet fashionably nerdy science teacher as his favourite. Apparently he comes home daily with tales of the magical things they do in class, the hilarious but stories told, and she couldn’t wait to meet this amazing person her son found so fascinating. Jason, the youngest member of our department, smiles and nods. He is new to this game, and his skin glows with enthusiasm and the heat. When he can get a word in edgewise he compliments her on her brilliant and generous son.

Our department head, Willie, is on my right. A tall thin sour-faced man, his right arm is raised with forefinger extended, stabbing downward repeatedly to punctuate the lecture being delivered to the man who sits in front of him with arms crossed, body rigid and mouth pursed but nonetheless nodding his head slightly as if in grudging agreement. Not for the first time, I visualize Willie as a science fundamentalist, preaching the gospel of grade twelve physics in a futile effort to save the mortal souls of apostate adolescents.

With a jolt, I realize that the woman in front of me has stopped talking and is peering at me dubiously. Damn. Was my woolgathering that obvious? I focus my eyes on the report sitting on my desk. Corey has marks in the mid-sixties. He’s far from stupid, but he’s often absent and when he is there, is either asleep or unfocussed. The gist of his mother’s explanation, if I am interpreting the part that I could actually hear correctly, is that he’s needed to stay home and look after his younger siblings when she’s late getting home from her night cleaning job.

What can I say? Do I have the right to criticize his mother for looking at the short term, which is trying to make sure that her kids are fed and have a roof over their heads, instead of the long term? That their best hope is for him to get an education, a decent job, and find a way out of the poverty trap? The boy needs someone in his corner, someone who will fight for his right to find out what he’s capable of, instead of quitting school as soon as he can to help his mother put food on the table.

To keep myself from speaking before my response is completely thought out, I grab my mug and take a gulp. I choke on the cold coffee while a thin stream dribbles out of the corners of my mouth. Stacey, my student helper, leaps up with Kleenex at the ready, patting my sweater dry while I mop my chin. Thank God it didn’t come out of my nose, I think. Stacey is making little sounds of sympathy but her eyes are cold and disdainful. The administration envisions our student secretaries as eager volunteers for their favourite teachers, but I had to bribe Stacey with the twin promises of leaving early and double the hours on her volunteer record. She thinks I am feeble and I think she is snotty. But, she is efficient and dedicated in her job.

Right now Stacey, determined that this parent not go over her allotted ten minutes, is ostentatiously consulting her schedule and making preliminary sounds of closure. I frown at her but she doesn’t pick up on the signal, preferring instead to loudly begin greeting the next parent in line. I sigh, quietly and to myself, sorting my options for getting through to this one.

“Mrs. Williams, Corey is a bright boy. He has the capacity to do well, and should be thinking about college.”

She peers at me and shakes her head. I’ve gone too far. No one in the family has post-secondary education, and anyway it’s too far ahead in the hazy future, two or three years away, a crazy dream less real than winning the lottery, not worth spending energy on.

I try again. “Grade ten science is mandatory. Corey must complete all of his assignments if he wants to earn the credit, and not have to repeat it.”

That was better. Repeating the credit means more time wasted. But I’m still walking a fine line. Failing is just a way for a kid to prove they’re stupid, school doesn’t work for them, and they might as well leave for a job that shows they’re capable of doing something right.

“Corey’s missing too many classes. If you can make sure he attends every day, I will speak to him about how he can make up his missing assignments.” Better to speak to Corey himself, give him an idea of what he could be, what he could become. If his mother can’t put a hopeful vision of his future in his head maybe I can.

Parent teacher interviews are a total crapshoot. You never know what you’re going to get. You spend an hour a day, five days a week with a child and sometimes it turns out you know them better than their parents do; on the other hand sometimes the child you see every day is a completely different person than you thought.

In this school, interviews are held en masse, in the gym, with the teachers captive behind desks pushed up against the walls. The parents make appointments with the student secretaries then wait, often within earshot of whatever interview is currently in progress. Administration thinks it is more time effective and safer for teachers than in solitary classrooms behind closed doors, but it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation when you must tiptoe around confidentiality. I make a note to myself to speak directly to Corey about how to improve his marks and to phone his mother next week and try again to get through to her about his attendance.

Mrs. Williams wanders off in search of Corey’s English teacher, and a petite smiling blonde takes her place. She leans forward and says; “I’m Samantha’s mom. Samantha Morrison? She just loves your class. You’re her favourite teacher.”

Resisting the urge to look and see if Jason’s fan club has heard any of this, I mentally scan through my classes until I come up with Samantha’s face, then attach a synopsis of her character, her attitude and her marks. “Thank you. Yes, Samantha’s in my Grade 11 biology class. I’m glad she enjoys it. And she’s doing well.”

Mrs. Morrison goes on; “It’s easy to do well when you like something, isn’t it? And she’s never liked a science class before, really. Not like this.” She leans closer. “Samantha had Mr. Dean as her grade nine teacher.”

She looks knowingly at me and I can’t help myself; I nod in understanding. Willie Dean chews up the grade nines and spits them out. He claims he’s training them to understand that science is hard work and to get them ready for their senior years. Some of them are, indeed, made stronger through their time served with him, but many more make sure they never step into another science classroom after grade ten. Girls especially are turned off by his hardball approach.

Mrs. Morrison continues to talk about Samantha and her plans for college. I smile and make appropriate sounds of agreement, but again my brain whirls off on its well worn meta-thought patterns. I am thinking about Samantha’s lab partner and boyfriend. I’ve heard staff room gossip that Ricky Price is a drug dealer; he has an uncle in prison and is somehow connected to the mob. He’s a charming and confident boy and I can see why Samantha is attracted to him. But just yesterday, I observed him sitting very close to another girl in class, whispering together, his hand on her thigh. His timing was perfect; by the time Samantha entered the room there was at least a metre of empty space between them and he was busy opening his books. He kissed her on the cheek as she sat down, then looked up at me and winked.

I probably blushed as if I’d been caught at something, but I definitely remember the chill that went up my spine. His behaviour was calculated and cold, very far from your typical sixteen year old boy. I had a feeling that Samantha’s happy experience of biology class was about to come crashing to an end.

In front of me, Stacey is giving Mrs. Morrison the bum’s rush. I smile goodbye, then turn my attention to the man taking her place. Then I realize one of my students, Tyler Foster, is sitting down beside him.

It’s not unusual for parents to bring their children to interviews. The advantage is that whatever the teacher tells the parent, the student hears as well. There can’t be any misrepresentation, no hedging or excuses. On the other hand, often you can say things directly to a parent that you couldn’t or wouldn’t say to a child, and vice-versa. A good student-teacher relationship hinges on trust. High school students are of an age of increasing need for independence from their parents, and for a teacher to go tattling or blabbing every detail of a classroom incident can result in the loss of that trust and a complete shutdown by the student.

Mindful of this, and of the fact that I have never had any trouble with Tyler whatsoever, I respond to his father’s query “How’s he doing?” by smiling at Tyler.

“Tyler’s a good student. He comes to class on time, he’s prepared and he’s always on task,” which is teacher code for “He does what he’s told and doesn’t waste my time.” I am about to go on but I stop, sensing a heaviness in the air. Sure enough, Mr. Foster, who has been listening with a frown on his face, explodes angrily. “Are you sure you’re talking about the right boy?” He gestures at Tyler, who shrinks into his chair in response. “This is a kid who does nothing that I can see, who lays around and watches TV, I have to force him to do his chores and I never see him do homework.”

Mr. Foster is an average looking middle aged man, neither tall nor short, fat nor thin, but he does have one unusual characteristic: he has wide eyebrows that appear to be made of steel wool. Placed at an odd angle above his eyes on thick jutting ridges of bone, the hairs bristle out at me. I am caught up in watching how they move; they seem to be synchronized so that when one moves up his forehead the other is drawn down. I wonder why the hairs are so long. Does he need to clip them so they don’t get in his eyes? And why are they iron grey when his hair is dark brown? Suddenly something slams down on the desk and I jump.

He’s been holding a piece of paper, Tyler’s report card, in his right hand and waving it around. It hit the desk so hard that heads around us come up in response. “And he’s only got seventy-five percent! Where does that get him? He’s not going anywhere with a measly seventy-five percent!”

I buy some time by leaning forward, taking the report and studying it as though I’ve never seen it before. I notice that of his four courses, Tyler’s earned his highest mark in science. A question forms on my lips but Mr. Foster pre-empts me.

“He’s lazy! You have to make him work harder. Don’t be so soft on him. He can do better.”

I catch sight of Stacey, who’s clearly pretending not to listen, but the little smirk on her face betrays her.

She thinks of herself as a superior and brilliant student. I know better; her ability to comprehend and analyze is quite shallow, and I as much as told her so when she complained to me that an assignment she believed should earn her ninety-nine percent only netted her an eighty-five. A generous mark, and based solely on the vast array of facts she cited. She is quite happy to witness me catching hell.

I finally conclude my interview with the Fosters, Tyler not wanting to look me in the eye and his father still belligerent but somewhat mollified by my promises to double check Tyler’s homework daily. As they walk away, I check the list of scheduled interviews. Three down and twelve to go!

All around me, sound reverberates off the walls and the raftered ceiling. I imagine opening a tiny trap door at the peak of the roof, letting a cloud of unconnected words and phrases float out into the night sky. I visualize the word cloud dispersing over the town. Perhaps tomorrow, people will find word fragments and single letters lying like debris in their gardens and on the hoods of their cars.

I try not to let Stacey hear me sigh. It’s going to be a very long evening.

One comment

  1. Suzanne Burchell

    a perfect capturing of parent’s night from a tired teacher……the kalaidescope of her mind mirrors how teachers think taking in the big picture and then focussing on the singular………I wonder why the teacher is so tired, cynical and lacking in empathy for the Mother who works so hard.I know there are too many teachers like her who lose thier zeal and passion. Stacey is a real portait of students in the millenium who see reality clearly and suffer no fools to get what they need.This story is excellently crafted.The final sentence about the sigh says so much. Hope this teacher retires early.

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