Being a public school teacher means that you quickly discover that “there are all kinds of kinds.” Being a public school teacher facing parent-teacher conferences? You learn that there are more kinds than you could have ever imagined.
Oftentimes, teachers leave parent-teacher conferences nodding their heads and saying to themselves Oh, that’s why little Martin acts that way…he’s not so bad after all. Teachers are quick to discover that the saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is in fact not just a witty idiom but a scientific fact.
So as teachers, you’re prepared for this. You walk into conferences knowing pretty well what to expect from each parent and you have a general game plan as to how to respond to them. But sometimes, just sometimes, this isn’t the case. Sometimes you sit down with a parent and you’re left with your mouth hanging open…
It takes a lot for me to be speechless. In fact, this particular situation may be just about the only time in my adult life I’ve been speechless. What I thought was going to be a relaxed and easy parent-teacher conference resulted in my mouth hanging open, my brain swirling, and my blood pressure likely topping the charts. If you’re thinking a parent came in and yelled, screamed, or even tried to physically assault me: you would be wrong. In fact, it was eerily calm as the mother of one of my best students said the following:
“Mrs. Thompson, I was physically ill after reading that story you read in class with my son. I had heart palpitations and ended up in the hospital for three days because of the story.
Now, in her defense, the title of the story is a little shocking. The story she was referring to was “Lamb to the Slaughter.” A classic story of a scorned wife that makes a quick decision to hit the man she adores, who has informed her he is leaving her, with a leg of lamb. It’s a quick three-pager that the students always adore. We focus on irony, we laugh at the unexpected outcome, and we discuss how inappropriately the woman handles the situation and what she could have done differently. The students love this story and talk about it for years to come!
Where I expected the whole “murdering her husband” climax to be what disturbed this mother, it wasn’t that. It was the fact that the story mentions the husband drinking whiskey that sent her into heart failure. We’re looking right over the murder and zeroing in on the mention of whiskey in one sentence. When I tried to explain that the students don’t even notice this sentence as we don’t discuss it, it fell on deaf ears.
Now, I could take you through the entire 30-45 minute conference, but to save you all the heart palpitations, let me just list out a few of the key quotes this mother said to me in that time frame…
- “The only lamb I know about is the lamb of God, and I don’t feel like slaughtering him is a good idea.”
- “May I ask if you are expecting? I just worry so much that your unborn has to hear these stories you read in class. I fear your unborn is on the path to eternal damnation.”
- “I just feel like your classroom is creating depression and sadness within the lives of these young teens with these horrifying stories.”
- “Can you read stories that focus on love and kindness?”
- “How do you choose these stories? I just worry these students are being set up to burn in the hellfires.”
Yes, in the span of half an hour she told me my unborn child was doomed and I’m setting students up for a depressive life on the “highway to hell”. You can see how quickly I lost my ability to form words in this situation. Classic pieces of literature ranging from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, and The House on Mango Street all gave her reasons for concern. What is left for a 9th and 10th-grade teacher to read? Just short of the bible or dictionary, I’m certain these also would not be approved by such a passionate woman.
In hindsight, there are many things I could have done in response to this interesting encounter. Whereas I explain the literary focus of each story we read and assured her my classroom is the opposite of depressing…the drama teacher inside of me should have done better.
I could have pretended to be possessed: clutched my stomach and insisted that the anti-christ was burning inside my womb. I could have begun to hysterically cry or quote scenes from “The Exorcist.”
Instead, I said “thank you so much for your insight” and wished her a happy weekend. Because that’s what educators do. We sit, we take the insults, we bite our tongues, and we laugh about the chaos later.
We also prepare for the onslaught of emails we’ll be receiving as I send home a copy of “The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde” with her son with a worksheet that focuses on the duality of human nature with connections to Jack the Ripper… whoops.