Thursday, October 20, 2011

Parent-teacher conferences, now -- and then

Long Suffering Spouse will be working late tonight. She has parent-teacher conferences starting after lunch and continuing until 9:00pm. No appointments are necessary. My wife is not expecting that a lot of parents will be coming to see her, in particular, but the math teacher is next door and my wife is sure to get a lot of her overflow crowd.

We didn't have parent-teacher conferences when I was a boy. We had report cards every so often -- but if further contact were required, it was because someone was in big trouble. And that someone was always the student.

I was in a Chicago Catholic grammar school through the sixth grade. This was in the days when the Catholic schools were pretty well chock full of nuns; a lay teacher was a rarity. Sociologist and popular author Fr. Andrew Greeley sometimes referred, in his fiction, to the parish in which I spent my youngest years as "St. Praxides." I think that's how he spelled it, although the closest name in the actual Litany of the Saints is probably St. Praxedes. Fr. Greeley actually functioned as an assistant in my parish in the late 1950s; one of the most minor accomplishments of his distinguished career is that he baptized me. But Fr. Greeley's St. Praxides was a troubled place. The hostility toward the South Side that emerged in his later books was understandable: the West Side Irish (which he was) and the South Side Irish did not always get along. John R. Powers' books about "Seven Holy Tombs" (a reference to all the cemeteries along 111th Street) were more or less about St. Christina's, not the parish in which I was born, but those familiar with The Last Catholic in America, etc. will know a lot more about the culture I remember from my childhood than those who have read only Fr. Greeley.

In that culture, whatever Sister said was Law. If Sister said I misbehaved, I'd get clobbered at school. If I complained to my mother, she'd clobber me too, just for upsetting Sister. If, on some rare occasion, my mother thought that, perhaps, I might have been unjustly accused, she'd still lay into me -- "That's for a time you got away with something then," she'd say. Or, "Offer it up." The debits and credits of heavenly accounting were, and remain, a Mystery to me. But, apparently, one's unfair suffering today could be applied to reduce the just punishments we'd earned from real sins at other times. My mother was just cutting my eventual sentence in Purgatory. Besides, in all fairness, most of the time I got in trouble at school, I was entirely at fault.

Tonight, my wife will meet her students' parents and say mostly positive and supportive things about the children's progress and potential. I don't even know why the schools have these conferences any more. The parents already know the kids' grades because my wife's gradebook is online. Tonight is not a social occasion -- my wife is dreading it -- but, if the conversation is forced or awkward, none of my wife's meetings tonight will be as awful as the one that concerned yours truly, some 44 years ago.

I was in the fifth grade. The fifth and sixth grades had recess together in the morning. One morning, for some reason, the sixth graders refused to immediately line up to return to class when the bell rang. I have no idea why the sixth graders staged this impromptu sit-in (which probably lasted a minute and a half... or less). Maybe it was just because it was 1967; revolution was in the air. Still, as I recall it, I and my classmates lined up in good order when the bell rang. We'd not done anything wrong. Nevertheless, because we were there, our class was also punished. We were ordered to write "I will get in line and return to class quietly when the bell rings" 100 times.

I chose not to do the assignment. Showing all the flair and passion that would later make me an abject failure as a lawyer, I instead used most of my time to prepare a brief demonstrating that the sixth graders were entirely at fault and the punishment meted out to us fifth graders was entirely unjust. Not satisfied with these efforts, moreover, I decided to add a personal note expressing my outrage at this treatment. Naturally, when speaking on my own behalf, and not on behalf of my peers (as their entirely undesignated spokesman) I felt no need for any rhetorical restraint. I signed my name and everything. (I wonder, now, if I put "JMJ" on the top of the first page of either document. The initials stood for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and were pretty much required on every paper we submitted in those years.)

Looking back, signing my name was not particularly brave: After all, by process of elimination, the identity of the malcontent would have been readily determined. But I certainly eliminated any need for lengthy investigation.

I was dragged by my ear to the principal's office. There it was determined that this transgression was so horrible, so outrageous, that my parents would have to come to school and show cause, if any, why I should be retained as a student. Notice the use of the word "parents." Most of your run-of-the-mill felonies could be handled by calling a kid's mother. This, however, was so awful, so contemptible, that my father would have to brought in as well.

As near as I can recall, this marked the one and only one occasion where my father actually entered a school building for or because of me. I grew up in the age of Paternal Aloofness. Fathers worked. Mothers handled the domestic scene. Fathers left early in the morning and came home at dinner time. Then they did whatever they wanted. Or whatever they had to do. My father was a lawyer. But he used to teach the real estate licensing course at night to pick up a little extra money. Whether fathers were home at night or not, kids generally stayed out of their way. If a father was obliged -- forced -- to enter into the domestic sphere, it amounted to a disruption of the Order of Nature.

I remember nothing of the rest of that terrible day until the evening. I remember sitting in the living room of my parents' home that night awaiting their return.

I was imagining the savage reprisals that would be inflicted on my person because I had caused my father to be summoned to school. I fully expected to die. I had even begun to imagine that death might be a blessed relief.

Then my parents returned.

My mother must have rushed past me. Clearly, I was no longer her concern.

My father sat in one of the living room chairs. It was become the Throne of Judgment, I thought. I braced myself.

"So," he said, rather wearily, now that I think of it, "I understand you've been doing some writing...."

He never raised his hand to me. But he sounded so disappointed. It was the severest punishment possible -- and one I did not, and could not, have anticipated. To this day, I still wish he had just gotten angry and given me what for.

The rest of my penance was fairly light, at least when compared to my imaginings: Instead of writing the sentence 100 times, I was required to write it 500 times. I did... more or less. I know I wrote it, as directed, well over 100 times. But I also edited the sentence, slightly, shortening it. The sum of the assigned sentences and the shortened sentences equaled 500 and the nuns decided I was back in their good graces. More or less.

1 comment:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Nowadays, Sister would be in jail for violent conduct.