It was Back-to-School Night. The pretty teacher smiled as she introduced herself and the rest of the third-grade staff.
Sitting alone and surrounded by anxious, excited young couples, I felt more like a bystander than a participant. After all, my ex-wife is the one who gets the kids ready every morning and picks them up at the bus; she’s the one who fights with Charlie over homework and takes his books away when he won’t go to sleep; she’s the one who gets the PTA announcements, lunch calendars, and school advisories. I just get the highlight reel of the kids’ weeks when I pick them up.
Still, I was more comfortable being there alone than sitting with my ex, playing the part of husband and wife like everyone else. She was attending a separate session for new kindergarten parents; we had agreed to switch groups midway through the program.
When the introductions ended, we were herded to our children’s classrooms.
“Please sit at your child’s desk,” Charlie’s teacher said.
And no talking, eyes up front, and keep your hands to yourself, I thought, like I was a student all over again.
As soon as I squeezed into my son’s chair, I peeked inside his desk. All the parents did—who could resist? Like most of the others’, my son’s desk was littered with crinkled papers, pencils, erasers, broken crayons, thin workbooks, worn spiral notebooks, and random items I couldn’t even identify. Looking around at the other parents, I sensed a common reaction: This is like his bedroom in a box!
Charlie’s workspace reminded me of the heavy desk I had as a Hebrew School third grader, the kind with a hinged top that opened up like the hood of a car. On Back-to-School Night in 1977, my folks opened it to find incomplete homework assignments, a number of crude doodles, and a costume jewelry ring my friend had stolen from his mother and pawned to me for a dollar. I didn’t get lunch that day.
What struck me most about my parents’ inspection was their futile desire to make sense of what they discovered in my desk. Did they really believe they could read the mess of papers and junk like tea leaves, and suddenly understand me better?
When my ex-wife entered the classroom, I pointed out Charlie’s desk to her, offering up its cryptic secrets. Her eyes lit up in naïve anticipation while I hustled downstairs to the kindergarten room to stare quizzically at my daughters’ things.
I was the last parent to arrive, but the teacher waited patiently while I found the tiny tables with Miranda’s and Cindy’s names taped to them. I tried, and failed, to infer deep meaning from my daughters’ crude self-portraits on the wall.
My ex prefers to be the intermediary between the kids’ teachers and me, as if I fall into an outer ring of parental responsibility. But standing alone in the kindergarten classroom with my daughters’ kindergarten teacher, I suddenly felt independently, vitally, and intimately engaged.
“We’ll be doing a lot of art,” the teacher told me knowingly. I took down her email address.
Though it didn’t dawn on me at the time, my involvement was actually made clear two words into the evening’s opening address.
I looked to my left and to my right. Yes, she was talking to me.