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Saturday, August 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Lite

Sure, it's wonderful when Junior shares family stories at school — until he shares everything

Special to The Seattle Times

There are 46,570 minutes left of summer vacation, not that I am counting. I am delighted that soon my three children will be learning from highly qualified professionals. I am more delighted that soon I will enjoy 29.05 child-free hours each week, not that I am counting. However, my enthusiasm for the new school year is dampened by feelings of panic and fear.

I awake in a panic after nightmares of sudden worldwide shortages of kid scissors, washable thin point markers and hand sanitizer. (Note to self: Buy school supplies.) Again this year, I face the miserable reality that I have yet to learn how to hem my son's pants. He will wear them until dragging the fabric against coarse pavement does the job for me. I can handle the disappointed looks from my kids — I am used to it. It's the disappointed looks from their teachers I fear. I fear what's on the other side of ... the Thin Chalk Line.

You may not have heard of the Thin Chalk Line, but if you have school-age children, you have reason to value its existence. The Thin Chalk Line is the thread that links teachers to an unwritten code of silence about the things your child says at school that do not require mandatory reporting. Think about it. Your child has six golden hours of opportunity to spill the beans about your family quirks, habits and screw-ups.

I fear the portrait my uncensored child will paint of our family. I fear the "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay, and I fear logs of any kind — reading, nutrition, homework, etc. I appreciate the occasional teacher report of my kid's cute, if misguided, remarks. It's the stuff I don't hear that haunts me.

Even though the Thin Chalk Line renders me blissfully ignorant of any truly humiliating revelations, I am not above attempting a little spin control.

Part of the mommy job description is to manage the public image of my family. This is in addition to interior designer, stylist, archive manager, social secretary, travel agent and psychotherapist responsibilities, not that I am counting. I admit to adopting strategies from Karl Rove (did I just write that?) in a pathetic attempt to improve, or salvage — I'll never know — my reputation at school.

I am paranoid because I have enough hard evidence to prove a proactive marketing campaign is needed to protect my fragile self-image as a good (enough!) parent. For example, our kids are not allowed to play video games during the week. I know, sounds holier-than-thou, but it works well for our family. Sadly, our policy had the unintended consequence of making our kindergartener seem like a hardcore vidiot. In June, I received a tidy pile of "Monday" writing journals in which, week after week, my little boy wrote novel-length odes to seemingly nonstop video-game play. I had so little to be proud of, and poof, it was gone.

I have been similarly exposed as a bad cook and a computer and telephone addict leading a family of jokers and juvenile miscreants. Oh, well, the truth hurts. We tell our kids stories and tall tales about past jobs and experience. I have had to explain that I am not and never have been a doctor, a pilot or a talk-show host. My husband has also never actually worked as a logging-camp cook, flipping his signature pancakes on a saw blade over a campfire.

Speaking of logging, it is popular in elementary school. Logs are actually Good or Bad parent tracking devices. Routine compliance and neat recordkeeping equal Good. Last-minute regret, memory-wracking and scrawling add up to Bad! Some logs fly under the radar and are completed at school. I wised up to the Nutrition Log too late to react.

My children had detailed their diets for a full week. I wonder if they got any extra points for being able to spell "partially hydrogenated fats."

I employ a last-in, first-out strategy for that cursed "What I did on my vacation" essay. This can work for you. Whether you have a fun, fun, fun, or a none, none, none vacation planned, be sure to include a memorable moment in the last two days before school. Over breakfast, remind your kids of the fun, suggesting sound bites and talking points. If they seem resistant to your message, feel free to remind them about that expensive trip you took in 2001.

Being a mom is hard work. Your children know this and have their own strategies for reminding you why you had them in the first place.

Someday in front of a crowded classroom your child will stand up and say something like, "I am thankful for getting money for hurricanes because it is good for other people," or you will read a journal entry that says "if I were president, I would plant new trees personally, raise the supply of flu vaccines and listen to public complaints." This will help you forgive them for telling the teacher "my mom is total chocolate fiend."

Heija Nunn is a writer and essayist living on the Eastside: heija@heija.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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