Monday, December 12, 2011

Getting Carded

My kids have had wonderful teachers. Smart, compassionate, organized, kind, flexible. Across the board, in three different schools on two coasts, we have been very fortunate that our children have had such a positive public educational system so far. Not only elementary school teachers, but teachers of preschool, karate, art, music and ballet, after-school counselors, and even teachers-turned-babysitters. Both my husband and I went mostly to private school, so we don’t really have our own experiences with which to compare with our children’s. But our neighbors seem equally enthralled with the school system and they, like us, subsidize the schools with  pre-real-estate-crash property taxes.
Out of seven grade-school teachers my children have had thus far, only one was a bit of a clunker. She was fixated on my 6-year-old’s handwriting (which, even in first grade, was a lot better than mine), and was heavy-handed with the phone calls home. One such phone call to me at work was to report that my child had returned from recess through the wrong classroom door. Apparently there was more than one. The particular communiqué was problematic on many levels, none having to do with anything my child might have done. First, if a teacher feels the need to physically pick up the phone and call me—at work or otherwise—there sure as hell better be a limb in peril. Otherwise, an email or note in my child’s folder (which I will never see because I do not check it, so let’s stick with the email) will suffice. Second, if I am receiving a call from my child’s teacher, I need to be able to grasp the reason s/he is calling. If I need to ask more than three times why the teacher felt the need to call over the incident in question, this may be an indication that such calls in the future are not going to be particular useful to either of us. I had never before or since received a school telephone call about any of my children that did not have the word “nits” in it. The teacher had a suspiciously anonymous “Jane Doe” kind of name, making me wonder if she wasn’t an exile from a foreign militia, attempting to start life fresh in exurbia.

Aside from blessing teachers with the gift that no money can buy--being able to bask in the charming perfection of our children--throughout the year, we parents are also afforded several other opportunities to thank our children's instructors. Teacher's birthdays, the dreaded Teacher Appreciation Week (yes, week!), end of the school year and the multi-denominational holiday season. I have been fortunate to thus far remain blissfully unaware of when my children's teachers were born. I dread the day when a child comes home with the exciting news that her teacher has the same birthday as her, guilting me into having no excuse not to come up with an offering. I say "her," because although I have both a son and daughter, I am thankful that former would be oblivious to information shared about his teacher's birthday.

However, there is nothing stealth about Teacher Appreciation Week. We parents are warned of it weeks, even months, in advance. The classroom's Class Parent--usually a ridiculously highly educated stay-at-home mom--starts sending emails to the other parents as soon as the class roster is assembled. A tip for new parents: When you are asked to provide your email address to the Class Parent at the beginning of the year, there is no need to wow them with your excellent penmanship (or even penwomanship). If your email address is entered incorrectly, then you have dodged the bullet of a Special Ops soldier. 

Teacher Appreciation Week invariably involves a different home-spun token each day. I don't recall what season it occurs, but I think it is cleverly planned for a month when the chance of snowstorm or nuclear war is minimized, so school will not be cancelled and families will not be deprived five different ways to show they care. Each day the parent is instructed--through a cavalcade of hush-hush emails (to which every parent "Replies To All" with a hearty THANKS FOR ORGANIZING THIS!!!! to the original sender)--on exactly what item is expected from your child, and when and where it is to be delivered. Invariably, one day is "Apple Day," where the kids have to bring in an apple-related gift. This is where the wheat and chaff are delineated. The crafty moms (Yes, moms. I have yet to meet a crafty dad, even the ones who make their living in the arts) force their precious Apples to stay close to the Mama Tree by organizing a hands-on project involving stamping cut apples onto paper with tempera paint. The rest of us grab an apple and jam it into our child's backpack. Some of us, in last minute desperation, may even substitute a container of Trader Joe's Applesauce, without the spoon. But that is purely hypothetical.

The other days in the endless TAW usually involve cut flowers and various written and artistic expressions of positivity. This, by the way, does not only apply to kids in elementary school, but pre-school too. And if you have more than one child, each class has a completely different timetable of TAW events. Working parents will need to call in sick for the entire week in order to ensure that the apple meant for their son's first grade teacher on Wednesday does not go to their daughter's fourth grade teacher on Tuesday. And, of course, if a family lives in a dwelling without a garden that produces fresh flowers, a new job will be needed to be able to afford such a home.

So it is with some relief that, for older kids, the Holiday Season Gift is expected to be crass and unimaginative. The timing of the Holiday Gift can be precarious, however, because it tends to come just days after report cards are distributed. If the school agreed to make Finnish Independence Day (December 6) an official holiday, we parents could slip the teachers their holiday booty prior to them grading our children's performance. Really, it would be a win-win for all.
When my older child started school (age 1), I admit I fell into the trap of thinking his teachers would ooh and aah over a personal expression of gratitude from my child. Like a drill sergeant, I stood over him while he scribbled on construction paper a special work of art for each of the 400 women who rotated through his preschool. I was wiped out well before we got to the parking attendant. This practice stopped by Christmas, Age 2, when, instead, I took the situation squarely into my own hands and analyzed each teacher's personality and attempted to match a gift card to it. This was tricky, since I barely knew the names of most of the staff, and, truthfully, found many of the teachers of this preschool to be sort of annoying. But I spent evenings running around to off-the-beaten-path stores and restaurants and had the establishments issue gift certificates for these teachers. For all my effort, I never knew if they even got them because I was instructed to leave the envelopes in their in boxes in the administrative office. Talk about a buzzkill. 

By the time my son reached elementary school, I had the whole holiday gift song and dance down to a science, literally. I formulated a complex algorithm taking into account how long my child has known this teacher, how many times a week he was in the same room as this person, what impact the teacher had on my child's biopsychosocial development, and whether the teacher ever uttered an un-positive word about my child. This then translated into gift cards, bought en masse at the local grocery store. Interestingly, no matter how many times I ran the numbers, the designated gift amounts magically equalled either a $10, $25, $50 or $100 gift card to Starbucks, Target or Trader Joe's. Imagine that. Gone is my urge for the children to so much as sign their names to the generic holiday cards that hold the plastic goods. I now march up to each teacher personally and hand her or him the card. I make sure my child's name is written in black Sharpie on not only the card, but the envelope and the gift card. I'll be damned if my kid isn't getting full credit for his mother's largesse.   

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