Ask not for whom the school bell tolls – it tolls for thee (and me)

It’s hard to say who dreads the first day of school more – my kids or me. Now, I’d love to say it’s because of the waning days of summer or the loss of freedom to make plans and spend time together without a care for football game schedules or upcoming exams or papers due. I could even wax eloquent about the first day of school as harbinger of another Michigan winter, another year of our lives together passing into the mists of time, etc., etc. But that really isn’t it.


The first day of school means that stress time and conflict time begins. Sure, some level of stress and/or conflict is there year round – I live with teenagers after all, when a request to please pick up laundry takes on Wagnerian levels of drama. That said, school brings a whole ‘mother level of stress and angst, beginning with the first evening’s homework – usually a signature on the class syllabus which is to be turned in the next day.

Homework, in it’s own special way, (a new ring of hell for Dante way) becomes a fire point, a trigger, a symbol of both my kids’ indifference and my self-perceived failures as a parent. My kids are very intelligent creatures. I say that with all confidence. They could also give a rip about school, each in their own way.

My daughter generally gets her work done shortly after getting home. She seems to view it as a necessary evil separating her from the things she wants to do. If the subject or assignment is something she particularly enjoys, she’ll give it her all; if it isn’t, she’ll do enough to get by and may or may not read the directions before proceeding. We can also safely assume that what’s completed will be turned in. Her special stressors really isn’t homework as much as study habits (a silly and somewhat archaic concept in her mind) and test prep – but that’s a topic for another day.

My son is a different matter altogether. He is, I think sometimes, smarter than all of us, as far as sheer ability. He is also Olympic-level homework-averse. If we can get past the hurdles of a) recording what homework needs to be done and b) bringing home the materials to complete said homework and even c) completing the homework and packing it up, there’s a sizable chance that the work – done well and done on time – will never see the teacher’s inbox. His hard work, crumpled on the bottom of his backpack, there to die among the gum wrappers and old Monster Energy cans, never to see the light of day again.  (And yes, we know there’s a control issue woven in here.) Then, after a period of no (in the teacher’s eyes) discernible attempts at mastering the material, he’ll saunter in on exam day and ace it.

What this all means is that the school bell rings and my Pavlovian response is to spike my blood pressure and yearn for valium. Somehow, somewhere, we missed out on the “work is it’s own reward” lesson. Aw hell, I’d settle for “if I do the work and get the grades, that crazy lady will leave me alone”.

I’m not one of those moms who demand perfection. Far from it. I’ve seen the kids that are the product of their parent’s own thwarted ambitions or drives and it ain’t pretty.  What I want is for my kids to simply give it their best shot – and along the way, hopefully stumble into something that they love to do and want to pursue.  Happy lives and gainful employment – and the ability to take care of Mike and I in the manner to which we’d like to become accustomed someday. 🙂

cat-jumps-off-ledgeAt any rate, the school bell tolls on Tuesday so like it or not, we’re off to the races.


Why do school conferences make me question my existence?

Last night was the thrice-yearly school conference night at our kids high school. Because we’re on a trimester plan, we get this fun three times a year. It’s not the process or set up that strikes dread in my heart every time conference time rolls around. It’s handled pretty well, actually – teachers in 4 main rooms, all arranged in alphabetical order with a handy map to get you there. As long as you come in armed with your kid’s teacher’s names, you’ll get to the people you need without too much fuss. You’ll also have an opportunity to sugar-up on bake sale goodies (fund the orchestra!), buy a sweatshirt (fund football!) or any number of money-raising options to support the various activities and clubs at the school. This is all fine, expected and no problem to handle or experience.

As anyone who has ever been to a cattle-call type conference knows, you will not see every teacher. We have two kids at this school so chances are even lower. Therefore, we have to determine the highest priority teachers we need to hit. You know what that means – the classes that either child is having any sort of issue with: trouble with material, missing homework, general shenanigans and monkeyshines, etc. Important stuff, to be sure, but not always the most fun. We sit with each teacher, review transcripts, discuss options and suggestions and move on to the next teacher. And so on, and so on. It all boils down to the same basic thing: I have two very smart kids who aren’t particularly driven. They have all the ability in the world but not a lot of interest in using what they have – at least not on the things that they don’t want to. Give my son a song and an instrument and he’ll sit all day and night trying to noodle it out. Give my daughter pen and paper and she creates wonderful things. Ask them to care about Chem 2 and you’ve got a battle on your hands.

I recognize this because this is where I was in high school. In middle school, I was a smart kid in a dumb school that got A’s just for showing up unarmed and not high. My parents pulled me out and put me in a private school where I was well and truly challenged and I had no idea how to cope. Over time I scraped together enough skills to make it through high school and into a decent college but never graduated. Here’s the thing: I didn’t see the point. I didn’t care enough to understand why it mattered and what limitations it would put on me in later life. Since that time I’ve been incredibly lucky and have landed in a career I never saw coming in a field I never had considered but getting there was a series of serendipitous happenings that would defy the belief of any Hollywood writer, including, but not limited to, the invention of the Internet. Over those years I’ve learned to care, to work hard and to enjoy the benefits that comes from this work but I am incredibly lucky to have bounced into my path.

I think I’m a pretty smart person but I see abilities in my kids I’ve never dreamed of. They’re quicker, sharper and more adept than me in many ways. But they are just as unimpressed with the possibilities that I was at their age. What frightens me is how well I understand how truly lucky I am to have landed where I am. If they follow my path, will the same serendipity follow them? Maybe, maybe not. But we likely shouldn’t bank on it. But back to conference night…

Step 1 of Post-Conference Club is don’t talk about Post-Conference Club. My husband and I ride home in near silence. One of us might start a sentence: “maybe we oughta take away internet access?…” or “It’s that South Park crap, right?” but inevitably our voices trail off. We’ve said these things before, we’ve tried many, we get the same results.

Step 2 of PCC is The Talk. That’s when one or both of us report to each child separately about what we’ve learned and where they need to step up. Said talk might include the following ingredients (in no particular order):

  • The bit of encouragement: “Your math teacher appreciates that you aren’t drawing so much anime on your worksheets anymore”.
  • The dangling of the rewards/consequences: “You do understand that if you want to go on the band/orchestra/French club trip, you have to hit your grades, right?”
  • The tearful recrimination: “But you swore this tri was going to be different!”
  • The ‘we’re just trying to help you understand the impact on your future!’: “blah blah blah blah blah” (as apparently heard by my children)

This is largely how it goes:


This sends me very quickly into step 3 of PCC: self-recrimination. I begin questioning myself and all I’ve done up till now as a mom. The mistakes I’ve apparently made to mold these bright and eager minds into the just-can’t-be-bothered teens of today. Do I work too many hours? (without a doubt). Too many preservatives in their diet? (duh) . Did that one time I largely wrote my son’s summer essay have a bigger impact than I thought? (well, maybe. But who the hell assigns a 10-year-old to read King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, in damned near middle English, over the summer and expect an essay on the importance of goal setting by the first day of school? Eesh!) Whatever the cause – and it’s likely stuff I can’t even fathom, I circle down into the “I’m a bad mom” pool of despair, questioning why anyone decided I should be allowed to have shared responsibility for these two creatures. This step will last 2-3 days.

Slowly but surely, the memory of this trimester’s conference will fade into the mists of time. We’ll perhaps make an improvement or two or maybe not. But I’ll bet my cat there’ll be a new set of crap opportunities for growth to discuss next time around and the steps begin anew.

Maybe next tri, no matter what’s going on with grades, my husband and I will only sit with the teachers of classes the kids are rocking. And there are those classes and they aren’t just orchestra. A reminder that perhaps we’ve done *something* right along the way would be a good thing.

In the meantime, I’m open to other coping strategies. What works for you? Or, as I secretly suspect, are everyone else’s kids perfect?