Dealing with third graders is annoying, but the parents can be just as annoying—if not more so. Jacqueline Marqaud is definitely one of the more annoying ones. She enters the room for her parent-teacher conference and shrieks, “How dare you give my Jocelyn a C in math!”
“It’s the grade she earned, Mrs. Marquad.”
“It’s ‘Ms. Marquad,’” she hisses. She slaps her daughter’s report card on my desk. “I want this travesty remedied right now!”
On the scale of “travesties” I’d put her daughter’s math grade slightly above a paper cut. “If you’ll have a seat, Ms
. Marquad, we can discuss your daughter’s work—or lack thereof.”
“Are you saying my Jocelyn is lazy?”
“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me,” she snaps. She pats her shoulder-length black hair. “How old do you think I am?”
I would put her at about forty-five, but I shrug and say, “About my age, I would guess.”
“I’m twenty-eight, if you must know. I was a young mother when I had Jocelyn.” I manage to keep from laughing at this assertion. Tears bead up in her eyes; I reach for some tissues to mop at the mascara that has begun to run. “My husband died shortly after she was born. That’s why she’s so precious to me. She’s all I have left of Peter.”
The play for sympathy is obvious, not to mention over-the-top for a C in math. “Would you like something to drink, Ms. Marquad? Coffee? Water?”
“I’ll be fine,” she says with a sniffle. She finally sits down on one of the children-sized chairs. She dabs at her eyes. “Thank you for offering.”
I hope her next trick isn’t to try seducing me; she’s not bad-looking for her age, but I don’t need to deal with her brand of crazy any more than I have to. I take out my grade book. “Jocelyn is performing in the bottom ten percent of the class. In a class of thirty students, how many do you think are doing better than her?”
“I’m not here for story problems,” she grumbles. Obviously Jocelyn inherited her math ability from her mother.
I stand up and grab a piece of chalk. “We have thirty students. Ten percent of thirty is three. So there are at least twenty-seven students better at math than Jocelyn,” I say as I work out the problem for her.
“Are you trying to tell me she’s stupid?”
“Not at all. I think she’s plenty bright. Her problem is with paying attention. Just yesterday I had to scold her for having her phone out during class. The next time I catch her doing that, I’ll have to take it from her and then we’ll be meeting again for another discussion.”
“I think the real problem is obvious: you’re not making your class stimulating enough for Jocelyn. She’s a very special girl. She needs special attention.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Marquad, but I have to devote my time equally among all my students. I can’t play favorites.”
“That’s why she’s struggling. She’s a very creative little girl. She draws such beautiful pictures.”
“Yes, I’ve seen some of her artwork,” I say. I reach into a drawer to take out a sheet of paper. On it is drawn a girl with dark hair and a pink dress. There are stink lines radiating from the girl and the caption, “Shelly Stinkmeyer.” I let Ms. Marquad get a good look at it. “I took this from your daughter a couple of days ago. I don’t think I have to tell you Shelly was not very happy with this portrait.”
“What proof do you have that my Jocelyn drew this? It could have been anyone.”
“There are others. She could have a great future as a caricaturist.”
“Really, Mr. Ridley. I can see now that you’re dead-set against my little girl. What happened: did she reject your advances, you pervert? Or is it because of her superior genes and breeding?”
It’s because she’s a spoiled brat, I want to say, but then I’d be in trouble with the headmaster for sure. “I’ve never made advances on any of my students. As for genes and breeding, I don’t take that into account.”
“I doubt that,” she says. “Now, are you going to grade my daughter fairly or not?”
“I can’t change grades she legitimately earned,” I say. “I can recommend a tutor if you’d like.”
“A tutor? Why on Earth would my precious Jocelyn need one of those?”
“A tutor would be able to give her that special attention I can’t.”
“Oh, I see. You want me to pay someone to do your job. Aren’t I already paying enough in tuition?”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Marquad, but the tutors charge their own prices. I have seen it help a number of children.”
“Yes, well, my Jocelyn doesn’t need tutoring. She just needs you to do your job.” Ms. Marquad shoots to her feet. “Or maybe I should talk to the headmaster about finding someone who will reach her.”
“That’s fine, Ms. Marquad.” I get to my feet and hold out a hand that she refuses to shake. She bustles out of the room, probably to go bawl out the headmaster’s secretary. I don’t envy her at the moment.
The next conference goes much better. Ms. Frobisher bounds into the room bearing a plate of brownies. “I thought you might like a little treat,” she says. “I made them just this morning.”
“Thank you,” I say. I probably shouldn’t accept the brownies—Ms. Marquad would lose her mind if she saw me taking a gift from another parent—but I’ve been at this for two hours and my stomach is rumbling.
Ms. Frobisher sits down on the chair Ms. Marquad vacated. She could actually pass for twenty-eight, though she’s probably older than that by a couple of years. She’s petite to the point of looking delicate, except for the breasts that will probably give her back trouble when she’s Ms. Marquad’s age. Her bright pink dress matches her shoes and lipstick; I have little doubt that’s on purpose. Her brown hair is bobbed short with a headband on top that also matches her dress, shoes, and lipstick. If it wouldn’t get me fired, I’d ask her out for coffee.
All I can do is take a bite of a brownie and nod. “These are really good. Homemade or a mix?”
“Homemade. The secret is using just the right amount of cocoa.”
“I’ll have to get the recipe. Not that I’m much of a cook.”
“I’ll have Ethan bring it in tomorrow.”
I nod to her. “Ethan is doing really well in his schoolwork. I’m more concerned about his interactions with his classmates—or lack thereof.”
“Oh dear. Ethan has always been a quiet child. Even when he was a baby he didn’t make a lot of noise. Sometimes I went into his room just to make sure he was still breathing,” she says with a lilting chuckle.
“Has he mentioned any bullying to you?”
“Bullying? No. Is someone picking on him?”
“There have been a couple of incidents on the playground and in the cafeteria. The boys responsible have been disciplined, but I’m worried Ethan might become more introverted if this continues.”
“What can we do?”
“I can recommend a therapist. She’s helped a few of my previous students. She could probably do some good for Ethan.”
“Is it expensive?”
“The first session is usually free. After that she has a sliding scale.” I reach into my desk for a business card. She takes it gingerly. “You don’t have to call, but I think it could help.”
She nods slightly. “It’s been hard for Ethan, especially after his father left when he was just three years old. I’ve done what I can, but a boy needs a male role model, you know?”
“I understand. Maybe just talking about his problems will help.”
“I hope so. Ethan is such a nice boy. And so smart too. I really don’t want him to be unhappy.” She pats my hand, her skin probably softer than her dress. “Thank you for your help.”
“You’re welcome, Ms. Frobisher.”
“You can call me Madeline,” she says.
“Phil,” I say, taking her hand to shake it.
“Well, Mr.—Phil—I should probably go. I’m sure you have other parents,” she says, her cheeks reddening.
“Yes, I do, but not for a few minutes. Would you like some coffee? They haven’t changed the filter in the machine as long as I’ve been here so you can probably peel the paint off your car with the stuff.”
She giggles at this. “As tempting as that is, I should go. Ethan’s at home alone. He’s a good boy, but there’s still plenty that can happen, you know?”
“Some other time,” I say. I wait until she’s gone to curse myself for my stupidity. I doubt she’ll go running to the headmaster like Ms. Marquad, but it’s going to make things awkward whenever we have to see each other now. I remind myself that besides having relations with a student, trying to date a parent of a student is about the worst thing a teacher can do.
I drop in my chair to devour another brownie. The richness of the brownies doesn’t help to improve my mood, but at least my stomach isn’t rumbling anymore.