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A (Quiet) Night Back at School

It's back-to-school night at middle school. I'm primed - ready to check out the classrooms, sift fact from fiction in my son's assessment of his teachers, learn about the curriculum, ask a few questions.

Do what?

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Questions seem like a good idea. Teachers always tell you they want them. What are you going to learn, after all, if you don't pipe up once or twice? And what better way to correct mistakes of the past - when teachers would stand drop-jawed if I chimed in - than to prove that I long ago found my voice and am ready with queries like, "How does the rigor of your math class jibe with the dismal findings about the United States in the recent Third International Math and Science Study?"

Turns out the school has planned for parents like me.

We start with a pleasant welcome from the principal and instructions on following our child's schedule. Now the Q&A, right? No - with barely a pause to breathe, he passes us on to the head of the Parent-Teacher Organization. Then questions? Nope. Just a request to hop up and follow school maps that look like a diagram of the Pentagon.

So, OK, there'll be time for give and take in World Geography, my first stop, I figure. But after we get a quick tour of the course and an apology that there's not more time, syrupy chimes tell us to move on.

Repeat this six times, and you'll go home well versed in the behavioral expectations for middle-schoolers: Keep it moving, don't linger in the hall in that millisecond allotted to change classes, and don't get rowdy.

I learned a lot and had fun. It's great to walk (quickly) through a school day, greet teachers, offer to help out in appropriate classes. But how about 15, not 10, minutes per class?

It makes you long for the elementary- school experience, when you sit in the same classroom and teachers have time for some questions. Somehow, the transition to the apparently more-serious business of being a middle school brings with it a no-nonsense approach that seems a little less open.

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I know. Middle-schoolers are in six classes, not one. Parents don't want to be at school for several hours. And reasonably enough, teachers don't want to set themselves up for a verbal assault from parents, or have rapid-fire, stand-up parent-teacher conferences.

But - there's something to be said for having all these parents together. It's helpful to hear each other's concerns. It might even yield some camaraderie.

So give us a bit more time. Many of us will indeed follow up, as you suggest, with calls or personal conferences. But for this one night, if we promise to behave, let us talk as well as listen - just like school.

* Send comments to: Learning Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail:

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