I walked into the school cafeteria, my third grade daughter clutching my hand nervously. My toddler dawdled behind with my husband, who had taken off work to be here with us. I was so grateful for his presence; he always offsets the anxiety and emotionality that pours off both me and my oldest child. Before we’d left the house that morning,my daughter had repeated as a mantra, “I can’t have Mrs. Johnson. I can’t have Mrs. Johnson.”
“Honey, that’s not a great way to start out Meet Your Teacher day. What if it turns out you do have Mrs. Johnson?” I gently coached her. I was certain we would have Mr. Paxton, just as I suspected my daughter and her best friend would be in the same class. It helps to know people who have connections to the teachers.
We stood in front of the registration desk, and I gave the women seated there my daughter’s name, spelling it slowly. She ran her finger down the list of students and then looked up.
“Mrs. Johnson.” she said.
I squeezed my daughter’s hand. “It’s going to be all right,” I murmured, as she began to quietly cry. As we walked out of the cafeteria, her sobs escalated. “I can’t go in there. I don’t want to go in there.”
I crouched down on the floor by the doorway, ignoring families who walked past us with curious expressions. Hugging her tightly, I said, “We can stay here for a minute. Let’s get ourselves together. I promise- it’s going to be OK.”
“Amelia will have Mr. Paxton or Mrs. Miller– I just know it. She told me her mom talked to the teachers!”
“It doesn’t work that way, honey,” I told her quietly, ignoring my suspicion that I was speaking with a forked tongue. “Maybe she’ll be in your class.”
“Mrs. Johnson is mean!” she announced vehemently through her tears. “She’s strict and she hits kids with rulers.”
“Honey, that’s illegal. Kids spread rumors– we have no idea what she’s like. We’ve never met her.”
We made our way through the hallway, my daughter sniffling next to me. We passed other parents and children we knew, calling out our teacher’s names to one another. “Paxon!” one mom replied, “Miller for us,” said another. Our morale was dampening further by the minute. As we approached the door to Mrs. Johnson’s classroom, my daughter panicked. “I can’t go in.” she said, and sat down in a chair outside the door.
Setting my jaw, I walked into the classroom alone, leaving my family in the hallway. I desperately scanned the desks for Amelia’s name, or any other familiar friends. Instead, I spotted the name of a kindergarten classmate who had been cruel to my child, who went so far as to lie to the teacher and falsely report that my daughter hit her. A five year old child. She later confessed that she’d made it up. Mercifully, the girls hadn’t been in the same class since then, and I knew her presence would only hurt our case for keeping a positive attitude.
There was no Amelia. In fact, there were only two girls with whom my daughter was friendly in second grade.
It’s fine, I told myself. We’ll start over. This will be good for us.
Us. Because, really, this was all about me, too. My daughter’s sensitivity. My sensitivity. Her anxiety. My anxiety. It was all connected in a hopelessly entangled web of projection, transference, and perhaps the sound of a helicopter (parent) coming in for a landing.
I prided myself on my ability to keep it together as my daughter sniffled and sobbed her way through the disappointing day of meet and greet. As we exited the building, I repeated over and over, “It wasn’t what we expected. It wasn’t what we hoped for, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be great.”
I reminded her that we needed to give her new teacher a chance. If it turned out she really was mean, we’d deal with it. We can’t always have the teacher we’re hoping for. We have to be flexible. We have to keep our spirits up, our attitudes positive. And other vexing truisms that made me want to punch myself in the face.
Because, really, I was pissed. Every May on the “tell us about your child” placement form that parents fill out to assist with class assignment for upcoming year, I write something like this.
My daughter is very sensitive and often anxious. She benefits from teachers who are consistently calm and nurturing.
We have always been placed with the perfect teacher. Until this year. I suspected that although no rulers were being brought down upon tiny knuckles, my daughter’s classmates had been right– this is the strict teacher, the hard-ass, the not-so-warm-and-fluffy one. And we have to deal with it.
Perhaps time will prove us wrong, and we’ll realize that Mrs. Johnson’s class was the perfect place for my daughter, that there are valuable lessons to be learned here. Perhaps new blossoming friendships will make the disappointment worth it. Perhaps it will be character-building.
But I would be remiss, not to mention naïve, if I didn’t acknowledge the distinct possibility that perhaps it’s actually going to suck ass.
I can’t predict the future. But today, my daughter’s heart is breaking. And as a result, so is mine.
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