Wednesday, September 06, 2006

the best thing that I could do

Last night was Meet The Teacher Night at the elementary school. I really didn't have time to go. From 2 p.m. until 9 p.m. I'm on lifeguard patrol, full-time. Breaking up fights, fixing up snacks, looking over homework assignments, signing papers that have to go back to school in the morning, looking through the lunchboxes to survey what was eaten/what was not.

Three boys, three different schools. Everyone has a different schedule. It's a bit chaotic.

"It's Meet the Teacher night," my middle child said hopefully as he walked into the house. "We're going. Right?"

"Right," I murmured, looking over the Xeroxed informational sheet he'd handed me. In my mind I'm already calculating how much sooner I'll have to put the Chicken Dijon together for dinner, grateful I've already frosted the yellow cake I baked after picking up the youngest child from preschool.

(How I love having something baked coming out of the oven just as the kids walk in the door, so I can hear the middle child say dreamily, "What is that enchanting smell!")

Wondering how much Meet the Teacher night will eat out of homework time. Probably a lot.

For me, Meet the Teacher Night is a been-there,done-that kind of deal. But for a first-grader, Meet the Teacher Night is a major event. So, you know. We went.

He held my hand, walking into the school. His first grade teacher was my first-grade teacher, which makes for an odd layering of past and present. The gym is the same, but so much smaller than I remember it. The stage has velvet curtains now. I used to sit on those wooden steps leading up to the stage and do the day's homework in the afternoons, before the bus came.

Five grades and a kindergarten jostled each other in this vast, echoing room as I bent my head over the notebook in my lap: it always seemed so noisy. Bad acoustics. It hurt my head. I'd come home every night from school talking much too loudly, my sense of volume distorted by a day spent trying to be heard over all the others.

How I upbraided a supervising teacher, back then, who'd asked me what it was I looked so serious about.

"I'm deciding on my career," I'd answered, perfectly earnest. "I'd like to be a teacher, but I'd really rather be a published writer."
He'd chuckled.
"You've got a long, long time to think about it. I wouldn't worry about it if I were you," he'd answered.

My hackles went up. "Why? Because I'm a girl? Because I'm a child? Eight is a perfectly logical time to start choosing an occupation," I flared. "I resent being patronized just because of my age and gender."

He'd walked away sighing as I renewed my plans with fervor. So I'm to be just a housewife, then! Resigned to be a hausfrau just because I'd been born with a double X chromosome. Hah! I'd be published, I'd be rich, I'd be glamorous, I'd come back in furs and with a personal servant, and I'd stroll up and ask to speak to that teacher personally.

"Oh, by the way," I imagined saying so casually. "I decided on that profession, and I guess you were a little hasty in your judgment, eh?"

His look of chagrin, as I fantasized it, warmed me all the way to my toes. As I sat there dreaming over the notebook in my lap, work left undone, not hearing the clamoring children in the gym with me; I was somewhere else entirely, in a world of instant gratification and easy money.

So, here we are.

Here and there in the crowd I'd see a former classmate -- someone I'd attended this elementary school with, someone who's now a parent, like me, with kids of their own to guide through the system. Familiar faces, friendly faces. So much changes, so much stays the same. Thirty years ago, who could have predicted which of us would still be here, unswervingly habitual and obedient, like the little wooden people in those German clocks that come out, on the hour, and curtsy to each other before twirling in a circle and swerving dutifully back inside?

My kid wanted to nominate me for president of the parent-teacher group. He also wanted to nominate me for vice-president, treasurer and secretary. He kept yanking on my right arm and trying to wave it in the air, as a flag, and I'd wriggle away, pushing my arm back down. With each new announcement of an open position we'd lurch unevenly, like capsized boaters struggling for the same lifejacket.

"You could be everything," he breathed, looking up into my face trustfully.

I looked around me, nodding, at this gym I grew up in. Yes. I used to think that, too.

But then he wanted me to meet the teacher, even though I've already met the teacher, I've been meeting that teacher my whole life if you want to get down to it; and he put his hand in mine again, trustfully, to show me where the classroom is (as if I didn't know).

I let him guide me around the room, and show me his seat at the table, and oohed and aahed over it as if I'd never seen such a thing before. Because I chose, at some point, not to be everything; but to be one thing, instead -- an invisible thing, maybe, a not-very-glamorous thing, but a terribly important thing nonetheless, the kind you can't see or really notice, only know and feel.

I chose to be a mom, and I felt myself swelling with pride all over again -- at my amazing, incredible kid, and how lucky I am to still be a part of all this. I was here before and I'm here now and probably in another two decades I'll be here again with my grandchildren, God willing.

Before, I didn't want anyone to tell me this was the only thing I could do, personally; now, I realize, I know, myself, it certainly isn't the only thing; but it is, somehow ( for me), the best.