Primary stress

First published in Melbourne’s Child in 2006

(Also published in Sydney’s, Brisbane’s, Canberra’s, Adelaide’s and Perth’s Child)

School is much harder the second time around. Back when I was in primary school I didn’t worry about my lunch, except if I got an egg salad sandwich, which was very bad news indeed. I hadn’t heard of head lice, wasn’t drowning in school-related paperwork, and definitely didn’t lose sleep over the dreaded readers. No one warned me that primary school as a parent would be so much tougher.

Where did it all go wrong? I coasted through the early years with my eldest boy, who’s now in Grade 4. He has always been a do-it-yourself kid, so maybe it was thanks to him I made it this far without problems. My attention to detail went on long-service leave for a few years when my third son was born; that could be why I didn’t notice how poorly I was doing at school. However, it was when Oliver—my free-thinking, laid-back middle child—graduated to Grade One that my low marks became apparent.

I actually think I might have scraped by unnoticed if it hadn’t been for the readers. These scrawny little books are slipped into Oliver’s bag every day and sent home to torment me. To be fair, they only arrive when we remember to put his green reader bag into his red school bag in the morning. That alone would be a challenge, but before the green bag can legally be returned to the red bag he needs to read his reader, out loud, to me. Sounds easy, I know. But for me it’s like remembering to change the water filter in my Brita or do my pelvic floor exercises.

I usually find myself trying to cram Oliver’s reading in between making dinner, giving baths and unpacking lunchboxes full of sandwich crusts and apple cores. If—by God’s grace and an organisational miracle—we read the book, I find and complete the sign-off sheet, and place everything back in the bag, then Oliver gets a new reader the next day.

Unfortunately, the assurance of a new reader is about as much of an incentive for me as the promise of a date with Eminem. Though it may be unmotherly to admit, I would be hugely relieved if the little green bag never came home again. It’s not that I don’t like books, or enjoy listening to my son read; I would gratefully spend entire days, preferably in the hammock with a tall, chilled glass of something, reading or hearing Oliver do the same. But I can’t help feeling that required reading is an oxymoron, like taking a mandatory holiday.

However, Oliver recently came home bemoaning the “happy face” stamps he’s missing out on. Okay, okay. He wants to read the readers, his teacher said he should, so we’re trying. Besides, I’m hoping to one day advance into the group of “parents who do.”

You see, I’ve noticed that there are two types of parents in the world: those who do readers religiously, and those who think about it and try, but don’t quite get them read. When we get to school in the morning, the groups diverge, like two roads in a wood. The reader parents mingle near the school bags, helping their children remove the green bag and proudly deposit it in the Returned Reader Basket, as if it were Moses’ stone tablet. Accomplishment drips from that corner of the school; will they become our future doctors, lawyers and bankers? The disgraced non-reading parents are left wondering why, oh why, we failed to listen to our children read. We vow to change and improve so that someday we, too, can drop the green bag in its proper basket. See what I mean about the readers?

Putting readers aside, I admit that other aspects of primary school are also hard-going. The paperwork is a real problem. Crucial bits of scrunched-up paper emerge, barely salvageable, from the boys’ schoolbags each week. It’s not enough to merely rescue them; no, that’s only the beginning. I am meant to read each one. About 50% require only a signature before making their return voyage to school. It’s the other half that poses the greatest difficulty for me. It may be anything from a special social event to ordering a school calendar, but the common theme is money. The papers usually call for $6.45 or $9.60 in exact change, in unmarked bills in a sealed envelope with my son’s name, class, height, weight and ambulance plan number written on the outside.

Though these money requests lead to a panicked sponging of coins from every wallet and piggybank in the house, they don’t inspire anywhere near the terror of the head lice letter. This stern warning, direct from the principal’s desk, means the pin-size creepers have been discovered on a classmate’s head. And, most importantly, I am compelled to devote my evening to a conditioner-assisted lice hunt. Talk about a needle in a haystack. I usually find nothing, but am left to worry that the lice are crouching behind a hair, waiting to leap up and wave as the principal passes my son the next day.

If head lice letters weren’t enough to defeat a parent, lunch orders are. This service is meant to make life easier and the school has worked hard, apparently, to simplify the system. However, I still need 10 uninterrupted minutes of absolute silence at the kitchen table with the menu, envelopes, money and pen in order to have even the slimmest chance of getting the correct food for the right child in the proper classroom with the exact money. How did I ever pass exams at university? And then, one of my poor sons tends to forget to put the money in the Lunch Order Basket and ends up begging leftovers off the other kids; last time he scrounged half a ham sandwich and an apple. Given the multiple challenges of lunch orders, we mostly make our own lunches.

Primary school is complicated. I’m sure it was easier last time around. It’s a good thing I’ve got my boys to help me through. So, for their sake, I’ll keep on stuffing odd amounts of money in heavily marked envelopes, searching for head lice—and praying like crazy there are no readers at secondary school.