From either side of the desk, Back-to-School Night is a memorable occasion -- the equivalent of American Idol, The Real World and Survivor all rolled in to one. In 10-minute time slots, the hopeful teacher-contestants vie shamelessly for respect and attention while attempting to field difficult questions.
Sitting regally in miniature plastic desks, the judges observe, evaluate and do everything possible to ensure their children's well-deserved 4.0s or better, Harvard acceptance letters and future presidency.
Last September marked my debut appearance on the Back-to-School Night Special. At 23 and two years out of college, I was not only a rookie, I was live bait.
The evening began innocently enough. At 6:30 p.m., usually the time I collapsed onto my futon at home, I drove into the parking lot I'd left less than two hours earlier. My feet, still not used to long hours in high heels, were killing me, and my back ached from carting around my ever-growing pile of papers. I was in no shape to give an all-star performance.
Backstage in the faculty room, I double-checked my stack of freshly copied syllabi and took a few deep breaths. Other teachers were going through their pre-game rituals, rehashing particularly memorable incidents from previous years. My department chair offered a piece of advice: keep talking. Fill the time with need-to-know information and you never have to answer questions.
Unlike these scarred souls, however, I was excited. I love public speaking, love being on stage and, though I am none too proud to admit it, enjoy the opportunity to impress people. In my naivete, I envisioned the evening as a showcase for my engaging wit and intelligence, a chance to quell fears that The New Teacher was a half-witted slave driver.
A bell rang, inciting a chaos akin to the first day of school. Parents clutching freshly-printed schedules wandered like bewildered students -- older, slower and much more confused than their progeny. Teachers flew in various directions. Three minutes later, the bell rang again, indicating the beginning of the evening's inquisitions.
As the parents buzzed into my classroom, I wrote my name on the white board, arranged the year's books along the marker ledge and calmly waited for silence. But unlike their well-trained children, my evening's students kept right on talking. I cleared my throat.
"Good evening, everyone. Welcome to English I, Genres of Literature."
Two women in the back did not even bother to lower their voices, and two men strolled in mid-sentence.
"Paul! Sit over here," one of the talking women called. Apparently, she had saved him a seat.
I spent the next 10 minutes in a flurry of syllabus distribution (yes, we would be reading eight books), calendar discussion (yes, there would be reading assigned every night), and book summation (yes, many of the books were quite thick). When the bell rang, I was just finishing an explanation of the literary analysis skills I'd be teaching. All in all, a fairly solid performance.
As I gathered my papers, a woman introduced herself to me as "Carl's mom."
"Nice to meet you." I shook the heavily-ringed hand she extended. "Carl has really caught on to the analysis I was just describing. It's been great to watch."
"Really?" She appeared genuinely shocked. "You're serious?"
"Well, that's a surprise." She laughed. "He can be a little punk, you know." I knew, but I decided not to say so. Instead, I smiled and stepped outside into the crisp autumn air.
"Miss Mendelman?" I turned to see a large woman barreling towards me. "I'm Michael's mom, and I just wanted to thank you for the way you've been working with him. He responds so well to positive encouragement." She paused and blinked back tears.
"Last year was a very hard year for him, especially in writing, and I seriously considered pulling him out of here. I don't know if you've heard but their teacher. ..."
She was cut off by the bell. I had heard plenty about last year's teacher, but I was not about to take her bait and turn this into a Jerry Springer show.
The next three classes went by in a blur. I handed out the syllabi, did my song and dance, erased the board and started over again. With four classes down and one to go, I still entertained hopes of winning the non-existent Teacher of the Evening prize.
I was envisioning my acceptance speech when I met Ms. -- not Mrs. -- Smith.
"We need to talk about these vocab quizzes," she snarled, gripping the fanny pack around her waist as if it were a holster. "I think it is absolutely ludicrous, giving students 20 new words a week."
By now, my back was against the board. The woman, who was not much taller than my 62 inches, kept coming.
"I will not stand by while a policy like this exists." She clearly subscribed to the "Fire when you see the whites of their eyes!" mentality. I blinked rapidly.
"I, um, I believe that a strong vocabulary is a critical component of strong writing," I stammered, side-stepping.
The bell rang, but Ms. Smith was not about to back down.
"Perhaps the principal needs to be involved," she intoned, the triumph on her face suggesting she'd played this trump card before.
During the attack, parents of my fifth and final class of the evening had filtered into the room. Ms. Smith, suddenly aware that other people were present, turned away.
"Thank you for your input," I said, erasing the board. I wrote "Journalism" under my name.
When I turned around, Ms. Smith was gone, replaced by a handful of exhausted parents. My best students of the night, they listened patiently while I discussed student leadership and this year's paper. At the end, a few even smiled.
"The girls keep saying you're going to be so 'productive' this year," one mother told me. "I've never even heard them use that word, but they love it."
"It's one of my favorites," I replied. Right up there next to "winner."
Back-to-School Night was only the beginning. During the rest of a long year, I performed well enough to stay in the running. The parental judging panel did not vote me off the island, but daily e-mails and voicemail messages served as constant reminders that Big Brother was watching. Although I did my best to hold on to them, the handful of positive, encouraging voices were easily drowned out.
Only in June, when I announced my decision to return to school myself, did the parent-teacher struggle cease. A few of my harshest critics even expressed sadness at my departure.
At its core, the reality show of parent-teacher interaction is fueled by a common desire for the students' best educational experience. Often, however, the competition for the perfect transcript and the perfect future overshadows the actual learning. When that happens, the students are the biggest losers.
Is there not a way for parents and teachers to collaborate so that everyone involved walks away happier, healthier and intellectually enriched?
[Published 9/20/06 in the Palo Alto Weekly. Lisa Mendelman has taught English at two area high schools. She is currently a master's candidate in English at Stanford University.]