We sat down in front of Grace’s two teachers. The first, a stern grandmotherly figure with a speech pattern still reminiscent of her birthplace just north of Brazil in French Guiana. The second, a sympathetic, glass half-full, current mother of preteens. It was our first parent-teacher conference in the 3-6 year-old program at our daughter’s Montessori school. We didn’t expect to be surprised about the actions our 3 year-old daughter, until we heard the first question.
“Do you talk to Grace at home?”
It was the kind of question that could easily be written off as poor word choice by someone who was an English-as-a-secondary-language speaker. Maybe she meant “Do you say Grace at home [before dinner]?” or “Do you talk about school to Grace at home?”. We waited for a beat, expecting the other teacher to jump in and correct the question. It became clear the second teacher also wanted to know the answer to that exact question. Before we continue, I’ll go on record and say that talking (both verbal and physical communication) IS a bedrock of our family dynamic.
“Yes, we do talk to Grace at home.” I responded with a hint of confusion. We’re all talkers. By all accounts our daughter was a talkative, outgoing child at home.
“When we ask Grace to do something, like come inside from the playground, she’ll look at us like she doesn’t understand the words we are saying.”
I smiled a little on the inside. What a clever girl. When she didn’t want to do something, she went full Edward Norton in Primal Fear and acted like she didn’t understand what was happening, so she could keep playing. We assured the teachers that she understood the words they were saying and would have a talk with her about being better at honoring their requests.
Her teachers seemed content to accept that answer. But in my mind, I imagined their actual thoughts about Grace coming home to a monastic silence. A permanent silent yoga retreat that affected her school behavior. I made a promise to myself to show them the intelligent, chatty girl we knew at home.
One night, I was reading Grace one of her favorite Peppa Pig books. She had memorized nearly every page and said it aloud as I read. Knowing this was proof of “talking” at home, I slowly pulled my phone out and started recording.
The next day when I went to pick Grace up, I stopped the optimistic teacher. She was busy getting dozens of children ready to leave the building and had no interest in talking to me. I was like an investigative journalist with a bombshell chasing down the Mayor before he awarded a contract to a crooked developer.
“Look at this! Grace has memorized the book!” I blurted, shoving my phone in her face. She humored me for a moment and watched. I’ll be honest, this plan was a little half-baked because I didn’t edit the video to start at the most convincing part. The teacher only had the patience for the first 20 seconds, but the smoking gun—the evidence that would clear Grace as a talk-understander—was closer to 45 seconds in. The teacher smiled a “Thank you for trying” smile and went about her business, unconvinced.
We chose the Montessori school because like most parents, we wanted the best for our child. While I had a fine experience in public school, my wife had a traumatic experience at hers, so the warm glow of a Montessori education felt like a step up. The school, located in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Northwest Washington, D.C., was a real who’s who. It drew families from overseas working for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There were double-lawyer power couples and relatives of politicians. At grandparents’ day, I had to do a double-take because Senator Al Franken was visiting his grandson in class. There aren’t many Senate Judiciary Committee members that also wrote and performed on Saturday Night Live, but one was monitoring some crafting right in front of me.
This classroom had class! It felt exotic and hoity compared to my bland, rural childhood. I had class with multiple Michaels, Megans, and Mathews. My daughter went to school with Timothee, Miles, Zayn, Sasha, Harper, Rastin, Camille, Ida, Daphne, Amelia, Eli, Leo, and Leonardo. You read that right. A Leo and a Leonardo in the same class.
A family was kind enough to invite the class parents over for drinks at their picturesque home. The father was a political right-hand man to a Congressman and the wife was a professor. We felt pretty pedestrian and average, but decided it would be important for us to at least try to be part of the community at school.
Though we felt a bit anxious and self-conscious of how we’d stack up, we showed up, along with four other families in the kids’ class. To maximize our babysitting time, we had dinner beforehand and a few drinks, which made us a little giggly. It also helped to ease our nerves about going into what felt like a posh situation.
The atmosphere in their home was warm. A fire raged in the fireplace. The father offered us some wine and we accepted. He went into the kitchen to grab a new bottle and glasses. The living room table was covered with hors d’oeurves, including a stone plate with cheeses. Sitting at attention next to the table was a big, regal-looking wolf-dog. We made polite conversation in the home about how much everyone liked the school. All the parents loved the notion of the Montessori kids using their own inner guidance to choose their daily activities.
Then, the wheels came off. The father came back in the room holding the bottle of wine under his arm and wine glasses with his fingers inside the glass. I’m not an expert on proper wine drinking etiquette but I’m pretty sure anytime your fingers are inside someone else’s drink, that is a party foul.
Next, the regal wolf-dog leaned over and licked a piece of cheese off the cheese plate. Everyone saw it, but nobody did anything. I’m not an expert on proper cheese etiquette, but I’m pretty sure once a dog licks the plate, it’s time to put out the hummus instead. Ironically, we were all being too polite to point out any of these etiquette missteps.
Then, a palpable smell of smoke from the fireplace permeated the room. I’m not an expert on fireplace flue etiquette, but I’m pretty sure when the smoke is rolling in instead of out, there is a problem. Yet no one blinked an eye.
The dad talked about his older son, who also went to the school. When he was Grace’s age he had made a little girlfriend in the class. “It was really cute to see them together,” the dad expressed. “But the girl had a twin sister and when the three were together they bullied her pretty badly,” the dad lamented. I’m not an expert on the proper age for child romance, but if it’s in service of breaking up the supernatural bond, turning twin on twin, I’m going to say it’s inappropriate. He continued with an offer, “We should have a play date for Grace and our younger son!”
Right around that time, the dog ate an entire hunk of brie off the plate, they told a story about their kids jumping on top of their neighbors’ car roofs when it snowed—and to top it off—the smoke alarm blared. “Is it smoky in here? You know we had to rebuild this house three years ago because of a fire.” With no interest in being there when history repeated itself, I set down the wine glass I had been politely pretending to drink from and said we had to relieve our babysitter.
We never did schedule that play date. We walked away realizing that regardless of where you go to school, how nice your house is, or what you do for a living, everyone has their own version of crazy. Our version would fit in just fine.