Back-to-school blues

If school is so good for your kids, why does it make you look so bad?

Published September 9, 1998 2:17PM (EDT)

Ask almost any mom: This is the most splendid time of the year, when summer loosens its hot, lazy hold and kids go back to school. The long, slow uncertainties of summer schedules are traded in for a regimen of book bags, assignment notebooks and PTA meetings.

Frankly, I've always hated it.

It's not that I want summer to go on ad infinitum. I'm as sick as the next mom of summer's weird rules: Anyone still asleep past noon may be forced to submit to a pulse check, and children eating the first meal of the day at 2 p.m. had better be prepared to call it "lunch" instead of "breakfast." You'd think that after living with these quirky household rules for two months, I'd be delighted to experience a little organization and discipline again.

But the return of routine also means the return of my possessed children. They morph into little automatons, agents of a system that seems intent on spotlighting my inadequacies. They bring piles of notices home and expect me to read and keep track of them. They claim they need special notebooks (wide-ruled, black-and-white marble pattern on the front, no spiral holes) that seem to be perpetually out of stock at every possible store. They announce at 9 p.m. that something bizarre and impossible must be taken to school the very next day. If I'm lucky, it's something like 24 chocolate and vanilla cupcakes for a class picnic. If I'm not, I could end up creating a miniature steel mill out of tuna fish cans, so that fifth graders can learn about the Industrial Revolution.

The worst request, by far, came from my son, who insisted that I provide him with a ruby -- as in a precious gem! -- so his science class could build a laser beam. Just try arguing with your kid about whether anyone's family should have to be responsible for locating a semiprecious stone for the seventh grade, and believe me, you'll long for the days when your offspring slept until 1:30 and all you had to argue about was whether peach pie could legally be called "lunch."

When your children go back to school, you leave the luxurious realm of ambiguous timetables -- dinner served sometime after 8 and eaten outside on lawn chairs -- and enter the constrained, demanding world of structured education. Suddenly your life consists of heating up a can of soup before you run out to the PTA meeting, while helping one kid think of a word that contains every known vowel, and the other search for igneous rocks in the front yard.

The other night my friends and I went out for drinks to celebrate the fact that we'd all made it through the summer with little carnage. Compared to the school year, a summer of haphazard child care arrangements, midnight bedtimes for 7-year-olds, swimmer's ear infections, poison ivy and bee stings seemed tame and inviting.

My friend Josie, for instance, has been living a nightmare ever since her daughter's third-grade teacher remarked to little Sarah that she should "make sure to get enough rest every night."

Sarah, who was already showing signs of becoming a champion worrier, took this seemingly innocuous statement to new heights of neurosis. She insisted that no one in the family should even laugh after the hour of 7 p.m. in case Sarah herself got worked up and wasn't able to fall asleep. She would carefully take herself off to bed at 8 o'clock, only to lie there awake, worrying. Periodically she'd call to Josie, "How do you rest? Does rest have to be sleep? Is it resting if I'm worrying about not sleeping?"

This insane behavior persisted for many months until finally Josie went to the teacher and asked her to rescind the order for enough rest. "Give our family a break," she pleaded. "We do nothing but debate what rest really is." She was almost positive she saw the teacher write a note on her daughter's file that said: "Crazy family."

My friend Libby had an even stranger story to
tell. Her second-grader came home from the first day of school and submitted to the usual questions: Did you like your teacher? Is she nice? What does she look like?

Yes, he liked her fine. She was nice. She had brown hair and was wearing a pink dress. Then he said nonchalantly, "But it's too bad, because she's going to be sick soon."

"Sick?" said Libby. "What do you mean? How do you know?"

"Well, the principal told us that some of the teachers would be getting aides. And then at the end of the day, our teacher told us that she was one of them."

Then there was Anna's story. Her kindergartner had returned home from school the first day with one major fear: that she would be kicked out. "Of course you're not going to be kicked out," Anna told her. "Why would they kick you out?"

"Well," said her daughter, "today they said if you don't mind the teacher and follow the rules, then it probably means you're too little to go to school, and you'll have to go back home." Her voice broke, and she hid her face in her hands. "And I'm the littlest one in the class!"

Kindergartners are especially susceptible to the dire pronouncements issued by the system. But what's a mom to do? You trustingly put your little baby on the school bus the first morning of kindergarten, but the child who gets off that bus in the afternoon has become a Child of the System. She is an upstanding citizen of the elementary school. Not only is she brainwashed by the system authorities, but she sees that you are lacking in many of the skills necessary to get you through the deluge of homework assignments, parent-teacher conferences and science fairs sure to be coming your way.

Take the notices, for example. Your kids will bring home enough of these to make you wild with anxiety. In the first week of school alone, you'll be hit with permission slips for future field trips, school lunch menus, the school lunch sign-up sheet, the free lunch qualification form, the what-to-do-if-there's-an-emergency form, the school closings information, the calendar for the year, the list of supplies you were supposed to have provided and, if you're lucky, a list of the names and phone numbers of the other mothers so you can all console each other.

I don't know what the kindergarten teachers say to kids to make sure these forms get to the parents, but whatever it is, it must be scary. Each of my three children has burst into the house from their first day of kindergarten, practically hysterical that I might take my sweet time about reading these forms.

"You've got to read it right now!" said my youngest daughter. "The teacher will know if you wait until tomorrow!"

Now that I think about it, peach pie probably does make an OK lunch. I can't imagine why I ever thought otherwise.

By Sandi Kahn Shelton

Sandi Kahn Shelton is the author of "You Might as Well Laugh: Surviving the Joys of Parenthood" (Bancroft Press, 1997) and a columnist for Working Mother magazine. She is the mother of three children.

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