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An “F” for Mommy


Something happened to my kids on the way to school.

At home, they had a certain propensity for sassiness. Okay, so they weren’t miscreants by any means, but with us anyway, they definitely spoke their minds. And I encouraged it. I wasn’t a yes ma’am kind of mom and they weren’t pushovers. The system seemed to be working.

But on the way to school, within the span of the drive it took to deliver them safely to their classrooms via car or bus, my little free-spirited rascals somehow morphed into something completely different. At home they were daredevils and show-offs. At school they were education envoys and consummate scholars. Quiet. Well-behaved. Mannerly. Of course, I can’t say I was disappointed, but I was surprised.

Some might say that’s just how most girls are in school. Others might contend my kids weren’t really agitators to begin with. And to some extent they would be right. It’s all relative of course, especially when you consider the kind of havoc some kids are wreaking these days at school. But the truth is a transformation occurred between here and there. Something changed inside each of my kids that I soon discovered would result in one very boring parent-teacher conference after another.

Thinking I had a pretty good handle on my daughters, I did go to school those first few times expecting to hear at least a couple of tales of misadventure from the teacher. Those tales were never told. Unlike their mom, who more than once managed to get all As on her report card and a C in conduct, the assessments were always positive.

“She’s an active listener,” said one teacher. “She has a very strong sense of focus,” said another. When I’d press for suggestions, I might get, “I’d like to see a little more participation.”

Then I found myself participating in a parent-teacher conference regarding my almost four-year-old. We had just secured our two slots in this preschool. Much closer to home and highly recommended, I counted myself lucky the girls had gotten in at all. Furthermore, in one of those completely unprecedented occasions of good fortune for the Schwartzkopf family, it looked like both Robin and Lindsey loved their teachers. I learned later that Lindsey, in particular, had the coveted teacher, the one every parent has their kid at that school for in the first place. I soon discovered why.

Aside from a quick hi and good-bye at drop-off and pick-up, I hadn’t spoken with her, but I’d heard plenty from Lindsey about the singing and laughing and learning that was going on in her classroom. She spent three hours a day, three days a week with my youngest daughter. At the start of the conference, she told me a bit about her teaching credentials, and a bit about how Lindsey was doing in the group. About halfway into our meeting she got my attention. With the “F” word.

“She needs to see you fail,” she told me point-blank, “and then just … get over it.”

Mrs. Zampetti proceeded to explain that at the tender age of four, my daughter was an anxious wreck. While listening to a classmate count to fifteen in circle time, for example, Lindsey would lower her eyes and wring her hands in her lap, worried that she might not measure up. Our perfectionist in training needed to see that mistakes happen and people deal with them. That it was okay to fail.

“Spill some pancake mix,” Mrs. Zampetti said, shaking my hand and thereby concluding what would be the most useful parent-teacher conference I’ve certainly ever had.

Recently, I’ve been out driving with my oldest daughter, preparing for the day when she’ll have her license. In the Fan – where opportunities to make mistakes are abundant – I directed her to take a right onto a one-way street. There were roadwork signs, cars lined either side of the road, and I realized right after she turned that we were going the wrong way. You couldn’t go much faster than five miles per hour here, so no one was ever in danger. The woman in the approaching car laid on the horn and scowled angrily. She was two car-lengths from an alley where we could have made our easy getaway, yet she refused to budge. I’ll bet she’s never spilled any pancake mix.

The words have stayed with me. We had breakfast for dinner that very night, during which I took Mrs. Zampetti’s sage advice.

And I’ve been messing up – and trying to get over it – ever since.

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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