The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 23, 2009


Back once more to Back-to-School Night


Columnist Nancy Shohet West, a professional freelance writer, was raised in Carlisle and currently resides in town with her husband, two children and dog. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)

Autumn is a flashy dresser. And with all of her stand-out assets – gorgeous jewel-toned foliage, crisp fresh air, apple orchards and pumpkin patches, long sunlit days for hiking or biking – it’s easy to overlook some of her more understated pleasures. But when the end of September looms, I’m always particularly happy to greet a favorite yearly ritual of mine: Back-to-School Night.

This year, my household was one of the lucky ones. With children in grades two and five, our back-to-school nights were split, during separate weeks, so my husband and I were able to immerse ourselves in each child’s realm, one at a time, rather than running from the first set of presentations to the second (or, as in the case of many families, trying to be at two simultaneous teacher talks). This year, there was no rushing involved. Not only did I get to hear both of the classroom presentations for my children, I also made it to the music room, the Spanish room and the art room.

Admittedly, all I did in the art room was visit with another couple whom I hadn’t seen since their son was an infant. He just started kindergarten, so we had a lot of ground to cover. But in fact, that’s one of my favorite parts of Back-to-School Night. Wandering through the school buildings, waving to friends across the darkened plaza, it’s like Halloween night for adults, but without the costumes. Yes, the main point of being there is to learn about classes and curriculum, but it’s also just so much fun to see everyone else who is running around trying to get to all their kids’ classrooms as well.

What I really like about visiting my children’s classrooms is the feeling that I am in some sense spying on them, though only with the kindliest intent. Sitting in their little chairs, rummaging through their desks, studying the same bulletin board exhibits that their teachers have put up for them; it all makes me feel like I’ve been given the rare opportunity to slip inside their skins for one evening.

And it’s not like they aren’t anticipating our presence. In the younger grades, the kids write welcome letters that the parents find waiting for them in the classroom. My daughter, a second-grader, listed the five things she most wanted me to examine while in her classroom. The first was her writing notebook, which led off with a story about raking leaves. (This was more comfortable to read than the story we found in my son’s writing notebook when he was that age, which was about the time a week earlier when he slept in our bed with me. I explained to his teacher that he had a stomach virus and had left his own bed in no condition to be slept in. But teachers of the early grades get accustomed to eyebrow-raising stories and aren’t easily fazed.)

The next item she wanted me to look at was her classroom’s new electronic white board. Having witnessed, firsthand, the bidding process at the last CSA Auction that resulted in the five-figure sum earmarked for new classroom technology, I was more than happy to take a peek and even try it out myself. However, in my enthusiasm I misunderstood the directions and colored in the name of someone else’s child rather than my own.

My daughter was obviously proud of her work and delighted with the many facets of her classroom, but I think her letter was intended to leave me feeling impressed, rather than envious. My problem with Back-to-School Night is I always end up wishing I could stay, wishing I could be that second-grader or fifth-grader coming into the classroom early the next morning to shed jacket, hang up backpack and start learning about the Vikings or factor trees or frogs or even how to add more detail to a story about raking. More than answering any questions I might have about the curriculum or the teacher’s background, I leave Back-to-School Night feeling tantalized by all the interesting plans and programs awaiting my kids as the year unfolds.

But it’s hard to explain this to them; they envy me because I don’t have homework and I get to spend the day with the dog. I’m not so out-of-touch as to forget the harder parts of a child’s school day: the friendship slights, the perplexing math questions, the chilly recesses in January. Still, I’m so grateful for the privilege of going back one night every fall and taking it all in once again. There are plenty of opportunities to be part of the school day as the year unfolds: helping in the classroom, checking out books in the library, assisting with recess/lunch coverage. But there’s only one day a year when we get to be there instead of our kids, taking their places as if it’s all meant for us this time.

That’s really hard to express on one sheet of lined writing paper with a number two pencil, laid out on each child’s desk for the parents to write a note back. So instead, I write to my children, “Thank you so much for inviting me to your classroom! I loved seeing all your work!” It’s about the best I can do, knowing that there’s no way to really make them understand how much I love this yearly opportunity to fill their shoes for an hour or two. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito