By George Valadie
For those who begin this autumn with school-age children, you have automatic membership in a club of kindred spirit.
Public or private, Christian or non-denominational, kindergarten or high school – it’s all the same; you join the club of moms and dads who hate the dastardly teacher creation known as “projects.”
You know the ones. Those stomach-wrenching “due in three weeks, build this, glue that, need a costume for a second-century mathematician even Google can’t find, go-ahead-and-kill-me-now” projects. Yeah, those. And believe me, if you don’t despise them yet, you will.
For those of us who have graduated (and we often felt like it was us who graduated, not our kids), we also share a kindred sigh of relief. And if you ask any one of us, you’ll find the answer to be identical: “better you than us.”
The topic comes to mind because the other day I overheard a group of our own teachers dreaming up these very sorts of ideas — “ideas” that, in 2015, are more formally known as “alternative methods of assessment.” It sounds like this, “I’ve got a couple of kids who know this stuff, but they always bomb my tests. I’ve got to figure out a way to get it out of them.”
The administrator in me salutes their never-give-up passion; the dad in me quivers.
I can’t help but recall when Sarah, our youngest, was in the sixth grade and arrived home all excited about the project that required her to “interview” her parents.
As a teacher, I actually like this sort of homework. When I teach economics, I still assign it all the time – hoping to spark some engaging dinner conversation about “supply and demand” or “conspicuous consumption” for those families that actually still sit around the table.
But as a father, having been previously called to a similar sixth-grade witness stand by her older sisters, I swear I might prefer a science project.
And when she told me it was for her health class, I broke out in a sweat. In a nanosecond, I had time-traveled back, sitting there in my own sixth-grade classroom enduring a health lesson. Not a daily topic like math or reading, it was one of those subjects the teachers had relegated to nothing more than curriculum filler for when the rains washed out recess.
So there stood Sister, trying to introduce our personal hygiene areas to us kids while we kids were trying to stifle the sixth-grade giggles that come with imagining those areas; once a month was probably more than she cared for.
And once – ever – was more than I wanted.
Thankfully, Sarah’s topic seemed much more harmless. She and her classmates were learning about baby-sitting. She told me there were no wrong answers. But it turned out there were plenty of revealing ones.
“Dad, did you have a minimum age you required our baby-sitters to be?” I couldn’t help but recall her first.
When she was but 2 months old, we recruited our 10-year-old niece to be her every-day-after-school nanny. Every day.
She changed her, fed her, burped her and cleaned up things no 10-year-old should ever have to see.
“No, honey, I can’t say we did. Next question.”
“What expectations did you have for our sitters?”
I suppose we could have asked them to clean the house, do the dishes and help the big ones with their homework. But Nancy and
I always agreed if our three were still breathing when we got home, all that really mattered had been done. “We should call this girl again, she’s good!”
“Did you expect our sitters to have completed a certified course in child care?” I started laughing.
Nancy and I conceived, birthed and raised three girls without any such course, and in that light it hardly seemed fair to expect one for frozen pizza and a 9 p.m. bedtime. A mini-course in microwaves and TV remotes would have been more helpful to the girl.
At the time, I’m not sure Sarah noticed, but it was becoming painfully obvious to me that this interview was revealing a whole lot more about the skills of her parents than those of her baby-sitters.
The task is the same for all of us, isn’t it – help good little people grow into good big people. And try to squeeze in a night at the movies every so often. But, I must admit, I read more about my new iPhone than I did about our infants.
Newly married, newly on our own and, for that matter, newly an adult: How many of us were thrust into being moms and dads before we really knew how to take care of ourselves?
Is there any wonder, then, how differently we go about it? Is an 8:30 bedtime better parenting than one at 9?
Is pizza for breakfast any worse than a sausage omelet with toast? Do we worry too much about the little things, or maybe the wrong things?
It’s the nature of this job to walk in two worlds.
We go to bed praying about the big picture – hoping they will lead lives of integrity, generosity and service. Giving the best of who they are to all they know … and those they don’t.
But we often awoke with our focus on the little picture – skirt lengths, fat grams and eye shadow.
“Dad, who was our sitter’s emergency contact – Mammaw and Pop or the next-door neighbors?”
You mean we were supposed to do that? I’m relieved that babysitters are no longer a part of our lives. It’s not that we ever really worried about them; we just always hated it when they were better at the job than we were.
Dear God – Children are your most precious gift and your most difficult challenge. Help us parents do exactly what we ask of them – the best we can. Amen.
George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.