PTA, pride, failure, Brexit

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Indo col week 32

It seems something of a miracle that I managed to avoid attending a parent-teacher meetings until last week. I always had great excuses for not being there – either work or just a complete lack of interest in going – but the day finally came where I could no longer avoid it, as this wasn’t just any parent teacher meeting, but the only one of my daughter’s Junior Cert cycle. This was Serious Business – no more chats from disinterested national school teachers about colouring inside the lines or how good the child is at sharing; this was a serious talk about the foundations of a life and career – this was education with a clear purpose. So I stuck on a tweed waistcoat so I would look more erudite, had a quick peruse of some memorable quotes from Pearse’s The Murder Machine in case it kicked off, and headed along.  

As soon as I walked into my daughter’s school I felt a familiar sense of dread. The nicotine yellow walls, hand-crafted motivational posters with ‘positivity’ and ‘prayer’ written in gradually diminishing fonts, the dead light from halogen bulbs – this was an anxiety dream made real, all it needed was my teeth to fall out or for me to wet myself, which seemed increasingly likely as I was starting to panic.

I was given a printed guide to the classrooms, informing me which teachers were in which rooms. It might as well have been written in Sanskrit. I tried to read my daughter’s report card to match up some names, imagining the teachers as depressed Pokemon, adamant that I was gonna catch ‘em all. Obviously, I wasn’t going to catch even half of them, as the whole system was rife with confusion. Other parents milled about, queues formed with no beginning and no end, with no-one quite sure who or what they were queueing for.

I started to wonder if this was a test in itself, if we were the ones being secretly graded and judged by the Department of Education. I’m very clever for thinking that, I thought to myself, wishing there was someone else around in a tweed waistcoat who would appreciate my tremendous wit. No, I thought, save it for the column – this sort of grand insight is the premium content that my readers deserve. Don’t waste it on these poor schmucks shuffling from desk to desk. Besides, I appeared to be in the wrong queue again and needed to move.

Eventually a helpful transition year student saw I was struggling and guided me to a corner, and there I was, the perennial buachaill dána, back in bold boys’ corner, surrounded by rather shoddy paintings of Jesus. All I was short was a dunce cap.

Finally I got out of the corner and got facetime with some teachers; the first one didn’t seem to know my daughter at all but told me about the class and their self care plan for the year ahead. Back in my day self care was a sin and they said you went blind from doing it. We smiled and nodded at each other, and said goodbye – she went back to correcting homework, I went back to my corner thinking that really, teaching isn’t all Dead Poets Society, is it? If someone stood on a chair in the self-care class and shouted ‘oh captain my captain’ you’d probably have a departmental inquiry before small break.

I moved on to the next teacher, who did know my daughter, and this was when things got intense. She was full of praise for her, saying how hard she works, how she was a pleasure to teach. I could see the teacher wasn’t just saying this because of my tweed waistcoat and obviously eruditeness, but because she meant it. The next teacher was the same, and the next. As I moved from one to the other I started to get more and more emotional, and by the time I got to the fourth teacher I was blinking back tears.

It’s a strange thing to realise that you might be an okay parent. We spend so much time fretting about passing on all our bad habits and mistakes, that it is extraordinary to think that we might be raising someone who will be better than us. In theory, every generation should be some sort of upgrade – it didn’t work that way for my poor parents, who used to have to grit their teeth for my parent-teacher meetings, as all but the art and English teachers said I was going nowhere fast.

Perhaps a knock-on of that experience is that I would give myself a C- as a parent – fair to poor, could do better. After my daughter’s parent teacher meeting, I realised that my wife and I might actually be getting a solid B+ – there is always room for improvement if we worked hard, but we weren’t failing by any stretch of the imagination. It feels good to know your best might just be enough.

That said, my self-satisfied bubble burst when I got home and my wife and daughter realised I left the parent teacher meeting without talking to half the teachers. I tried to explain that the last thing the event needed was a middle aged man in tweeds in the middle of a classroom, sobbing with pride. That, I claimed, was a scene better suited to one of those sensitive Educate Together places; if poor auld Jesus up on the convent school wall managed to hold in the tears, then I should too.  Besides, is it not the spirit of continuous assessment that I should go along next year too and speak to the other half of her teachers?

The biggest shock of the night wasn’t that my daughter had given up history, but that anyone is allowed to give up history. I had assumed it was compulsory, but apparently not, which I assume is also the case in the UK, where there seems to be a lot of cramming about what the Empire may or may not have done to their neighbours over the past few centuries.

The current stumbling blocks over Brexit and the border seem to cause confusion with many on the mainland, as they wonder what they ever might have done to deserve such a hardline approach from the Irish Government. Presumably the same people avoided watching Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley as they assumed it was a documentary about the impact of agriculture on climate change, or In The Name Of The Father because they thought it was one of those Jeremy Kyle Show DNA test specials.  Yet while there may be some gaps in the UK’s educational policy when it comes to their own history, it is great to see so many people frantically try to brush up on several centuries of imperial unpleasantness in the space of a week. Here’s to lifelong learning.

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