Thursday, March 4, 2010

170 days to Bar Mitzvah: open house

With apologies to Judy Collins, I've looked at open house from both sides now. A little over a decade ago, I was the young teacher meeting my students' parents for the first time. Tonight, for the eighth year, I was the parent meeting the teachers.

When I was teaching, I loved open house. It was an opportunity to tell parents great things they may not have known about their kids. Sometimes, they (the parents) would respond with looks of complete shock. Dave Banchbuch's parents, for example, were over the moon when I nominated him for English Student of the Month. That, way more than jamming Beowulf down the gulletts of unwilling teenagers, was what I liked about teaching. Unfortunately, one is unsustainable without the other.

And then I looked at open house from the perspective of a young parent. For the first few years, open house was eagerly anticipated. The opportunity this time was to socialize with all of our new friends while gushing over our children's art projects. Back then, we were among the first to arrive for open house -- and the last to leave.

Tonight, we sat in our car outside Anderson's Dive Shop in Pacifica, eating fish and chips we bought across the street. We had thirty minutes to get from the Jawa's swimming lesson to open house, but we weren't in any hurry. On my mind was the probability of finding a parking spot within a mile of the school, and how I would avoid all of the people I've offended and/or alienated during my three-year spiral down from Or Hadesh award winning volunteer to someone whose appearances are so infrequent that they are assumed to be mirages.

So it was with low expectations that I parked in the lower lot, approximately one-quarter mile from the school, and began the uphill trudge to open house.

Maybe my low expectations were the reason I came away so impressed. Besides the oppressive temperature of the computer room (where the Jawa insisted we take a crack at each of the video games he has been working on this semester), I have no complaints. I managed to avoid everyone I needed to avoid and felt uncomfortable only when asked "How's work going?"

Of far more importance, though, was that, even without the assistance of a friendly teacher telling us great and surprising things about our son, we still got a glimpse of a side we don't get to see. Maybe it's surprising how quickly these jawas have grown up -- one minute they're in kindergarten, the next they're in seventh grade -- or maybe we get an exhausted, irritable Jawa at the end of each day, who wants only to be left alone and not nagged unendingly to do his homework.

I'll tell you this: it may be like pulling teeth, but he's doing his homework. They all are.

You go to these things and expect the teachers to gush, in a general way, but the work speaks for itself. While our Jawa may not have the most patience to color within the lines, it was pretty cool to walk into Mr. Gottheiner's science room and see the video game he made for the AIDS/HIV unit projected onto the classroom wall.

All I know is that he goes into his room and sits at a desk whose clutter almost reaches the top of his PC monitor and types one-fingered with his legs pulled up to his chin, taking frequent, maddening breaks. Last night, he was up until ten doing a bibliography. At 9:30, I went in there and he had one entry. At 9:59, he had two.

I can argue with the methods all I want. The results were impressive.

Beyond that, this open house seemed different because the Jawa was different. In prior years, we'd show up, he'd run into his friends and disappear. This time, he stayed with us the whole way. Why did he do this? Because he wanted to introduce us to his teachers. I didn't realize this until we were in the Jewish Studies classroom, looking over everyone's proposals for the Tzedakah project. They'd each chosen a charity, made posters and scheduled times to present to the class. In the end, the class will choose a few charities and donate all of the money we parents donated in honor of the Bar Mitzvah year.

We were standing there, looking at posters, when I felt a tug at my sleeve. "Dad," said the Jawa, nodding toward his teacher, who I already knew from the years before I went underground.

He also wanted to show us his projects, the fruits of all that nagging, fighting and negotiating. There was the previously mentioned origami project, the video games, a Bar Mitzvah blog (I wonder where he got that idea?), the vignette he wrote that one day when we were in Napa. It was all there.

There, too, was a subtle shift in the way our son relates to his teachers. In the early years, the teachers were all substitute moms, except for Ms. Hawley, his kindergarten teacher, who was a substitute grandma. Now we see him interacting with teachers not as if they were peers, but more like they're supervisors than mommies. He may as well be saying, "Mom, Dad, this is Mr. Gottheiner, my boss."

We have one more Brandeis open house. After next year, it'll be on to some as-yet unnamed high school, admission to which may be worthy of a separate blog all on its own. All of the good and bad will we will have built up during nine years at the same school will vanish, leaving space for replacement good and bad will.
But that experience will not be like the one we are now closing up. Our next-longest commitment to a school will be four years, and I’m guessing that the first day of freshman homeroom won’t involve a bunch of parents standing around talking until well after the tardy bell. Nor will we all later convene at Krispy Kreme to do a post-mortem on the first day of school.

Open house will be different. The Jawa’s present teachers, whether they’ve met us or not, have seen us around for the past eight years. His high school teachers won’t know us from the man on the moon, unless, in my case, they’re big fans of fluffy local real estate writing.

That doesn’t mean they won’t seek us out, from across a crowded room, to tell us something great about our child, something we don’t know that will make us appreciate him in a new way. It’s been done before, but there’s nothing that says it can’t be done again.

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