For most of last year I served as the “Reading Parent” for my stepdaughter’s first grade class. One would think that, at its utterance, such an official-sounding title commanded the same instantaneous respect from school children that similar positions like say, the President or Caesar do in silencing boisterous audiences.
“Boys and girls, the Reading Parent … of the United States!” I imagined the teacher saying in a thick, formal tone as she announced my entrance into the classroom. Not so. I completed three terms as the Reading Parent, and during each stint, this teacher did little more than smile while letting me know that they were just finishing up their art projects.
“Class, let’s clean up. It’s time for the Reading Parent,” she’d then say, causing a dozen glue-smeared faces to snap in my direction and squint with an unnerving gaze, a mix of leering and ravenousness. And there I’d stand, like a crippled fawn wearing a suit made from the same fried batter that coats a chicken McNugget. Noticing how they would glance at the safety scissors clenched inside their chubby paws and then back at me, I could tell what was going through their minds. “Do you think there’s a toy surprise inside?”
It’s at this moment that I usually took my seat at the head of the classroom. As I’d walk towards the undersized folding chair reserved for me, the natives mimicked the cadence of my stride by pounding on their tables and chanting “fresh meat, fresh meat” until their voices reached a frenzied crescendo of unintelligible whooping and howling.
Intimidating as this may sound, I learned to ignore it. They can smell fear—drives ‘em wild. Even the slightest quiver in your voice while recounting the exploits of Little Red Riding Hood and they will go all Big Bad Wolf on you in a Hans Christian Ander-second.
Yet for all the wildness, I relished being the Reading Parent. It‘s one of the few things I get to do that’s overtly “parent-y.” Due to certain circumstances, my wife and I aren’t able to be as involved in the kids’ activities as much as we would like. Were things different, we’d certainly attend every PTA meeting, throwing in our two cents as to whether or not only gluten-free brownies should be sold at the next fundraiser.
Believe me, I would love to shout, “one thousand dollars!” in front of the entire assembly to make the winning bid for the “Prized Parent” parking space being auctioned off at the Fall Festival. Not only would I come off as the greatest dad since time began, but it would also ensure that my children finally receive speaking parts in the upcoming Christmas musical. Until then, however, I’ll have to endure another performance where the same kids wearing more custom-made costumes slur their lines into a microphone like drunken celebrities at an awards show.
For now, the Reading Parent is all I’ve got. That’s why when my stepdaughters’ biological father stepped in to be the Reading Parent after moving back to town, I felt as if I had been replaced overnight in a quiet bloodless coup. The morning he was to take on the mantle, my one stepdaughter practically danced in the streets to celebrate as she picked out titles for her dad to read.
“Do you think he’ll like this one?” she asked holding up an I Spy book.
“Uh, maybe. How ‘bout this one?” It was a story about animals trying to catch this smartass pancake. I tilted the cover towards her.
She scrunched her nose. “That one’s for babies.”
True. However, I kept picturing her dad slathered in syrup while standing in front of a bunch of voracious 6-year-olds. Honestly, I have nothing against the guy. Clueless though he may be, he does seem to love his daughters, and the girls need him. So, it’s good that he wants to be more active in their lives, and for to disparage this would only be petty.
Still, I hated the idea of relinquishing my title as the Reading Parent. The ensuing realization that I would likely have to surrender other functions to the girls’ father, made it difficult for me to escape the notion that over the past several years, I had only been a stop-gap dad—a temp the agency sent over to sit behind the desk and the man the phones.
“Hello, the Reading Parent’s office … I’m sorry. He’s out for the moment … I’m not sure when he’ll be back, but I’m filling in until then … Is there something I can help you with?”
After school that day, my stepdaughter beamed, recalling the highlights of her dad’s performance, which, near as I can tell, didn’t involve a tetanus shot. By all accounts, the class loved him; the sole complaint being that time ran out before he could finish more than three of the 20-some books my stepdaughter had lugged to school.
You knew this day might come. Mentally, I began removing some of my things from the Reading Parent’s office. An uneasiness came over me in trying to redefine my duties as a stepfather, and I wondered if the agency would ever call me again.
A couple months later they did. With my stepdaughter’s father out of town, she needed me to fill in. It was last-minute, but that was inconsequential. I would be the Reading Parent again, at least for a few grateful hours. Pulling into the school, I parked the minivan where I always do when I come to read—in the Prized Parent space. It only ever gets used during festivals and musicals. Other than that, the spot’s always open for me.