We have finished another round of Parent Teacher Conferences. Or our annual parenting review as Sam once called them. The kids are doing well and we’re grateful that they’ve been in school full-time this year.
Honestly, the sessions were a little boring. Which is great. Far better than the alternative. I can only remember one contentious conference, when I went toe-to-toe with a Dominican nun and held my ground. But nothing will ever compare with the conference we had with Michael’s Kindergarten teacher. Back in 2008. With the great Patti Jo Ruskin.
Some people are meant to do certain things on this earth. Thomas Edison was born to invent the light bulb. Michael Phelps was born to swim. Pat Sajak was born to host Wheel of Fortune. And Patti Jo Ruskin was born to teach Kindergarten.
She marinates the nurture of a mother, the demands of a drill sergeant, and the energy of a motivational speaker into her own secret sauce. She cries when her students sing Silent Night, cheers when their caterpillars turn into butterflies, and teaches life lessons at the annual lemonade stand. Kids learn their colors, numbers, and letters while she grows their soul. Her first Kindergarten class just graduated college this past May.
I met Patti Jo before Greta began Kindergarten. We had recently moved to town and a family in our neighborhood hosted the back-to-school gathering. Greta opted to ride her bike but wiped out on a hill, scraping her knee and ripping her outfit. Undeterred, Greta dragged the bike, training wheels rotating in the air as she hobbled the final distance. She dropped the bike at the door, burst into the house and hip-checked a few parents making a bee-line to Mrs. Ruskin. Emerging from the crowd of adults, Greta offered an outstretched hand, and said, “Mrs. Ruskin, I’ve been waiting to meet you my whole life.”
We had her at hello.
Angela had her own memorable year with Mrs. Ruskin. It’s from this time that the Anthony stories emerge. Anthony was a sweet boy who uninhibitedly cussed like a sailor. It was a new challenge for Mrs. Ruskin. At the risk of this post getting too long (and profane), I must tell you at least one Anthony story.
One day Patti passed out a worksheet with a simple straightforward counting and grouping exercise. Pictures of 2 hot dogs and 2 buns. The goal was to group the 4 items into 2 groups. While obvious to most of the kids, Anthony struggled to visualize the concept. He was paired with Angela who tried to help her classmate. Something she said finally clicked. Anthony thrust the chair back, slammed the desk with his fist, and announced to the entire class, “Son of a bitch, I see it!”
Please pardon the language; I merely quote the wee lad. Suffice it to say, there were numerous pre-emptive phone calls from Mrs. Ruskin that year. Angela was frequently on the receiving end of Anthony’s outbursts.
In short order, Patti became a close friend and the Ruskins became family. We bonded over our shared love of Notre Dame football. The Ruskins are rabid fans and host fabulous game watch parties. Even when Notre Dame lays an egg to Alabama in the national title game. Together we’ve played terrible rounds of golf and attended fundraising dinners.
Over the years, the Ruskins have been there for us at critical moments. In fact, we even have a phrase: I need a Ruskin. On several occasions, I picked up the phone and desperately spoke those words. And either John, Patti, Erin, or Joe hopped into a car and screamed over to our house. These situations usually happened while Sam was traveling internationally: a broken arm, a split lip that needed stitches, a colicky baby. The Ruskins are the kind of friends you call at 3:00 in the morning.
So, back to the greatest Parent-Teacher Conference of all time.
It was always a bit strange to sit across from Patti in a professional setting. She knew our kids better than most of her students and taught five of our children. But she always handled things at school with the utmost professionalism. Michael was our third child to attend Kindergarten. A November evening found us sitting at a short table across from Patti. She reviewed Michael’s performance and showed us samples of his work.
Just when I thought things were tying up, I noticed Patti’s body language change. She looked anxious and shifted in her chair. She lowered her voice, speaking in a hushed tone. “And now, I’d like to speak with you about Michael’s right ear hearing loss.”
Unsure if I had heard her correctly, I leaned in and asked her to repeat the statement. Patti grew visibly uncomfortable as she repeated, “Well, I think it would be good for us to have a conversation about Michael’s right ear hearing loss.”
There was that phrase again. I had heard her correctly. But I was confused and looked over at Sam. Equally baffled, he merely shrugged his shoulders. So I turned back to Patti and said, “What on earth are you talking about?”
Patti leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms and legs, and slowly said, “He doesn’t have right ear hearing loss, does he?”
At this point, Sam burst into laughter.
I replied, “Well of course not. Why would you think that?”
Patti leaned forward, her staccato cadence matching the tapping of her fire engine red nails on the desk. “Because he told me he did.”
I began laughing now and said, “And why exactly would you believe that?”
Patti tossed a pencil on the table, threw her sinewy arms into the air, and stated, “Because what 5 year old uses the phrase right ear hearing loss?”
Well, our kid.
We all had a good long laugh as Patti gave us the back story. Apparently, Michael was one of her louder students. His volume frequently caused problems and Patti had been working with him to lower his voice. In hindsight, she mentioned a few things in the First and Second Quarter Report Cards that indicated an issue.
But I read right through those sentences. I probably should have keyed into the problem with a closer review:
“We will encourage him to find an appropriate level for his voice when speaking and playing”
“We will also help him learn some coping strategies to help him work through frustrating situations”
“We will encourage him to keep his voice at a level conducive to conversation”
Eventually these efforts lead to a sticker chart to help track his progress. But even this failed and one day Michael slipped. Patti reminded him not to speak so loudly. Rather firmly. Michael was distraught and cried out in desperation, “But Mrs. Ruskin, I have right ear hearing loss!” Patti was stunned. She had no idea about his supposed disability. And here she was chastising an auditorily crippled child.
She gave him a hug and promised to help. She rearranged the seating chart so that Michael’s good left ear was turned to the front of the room. The sticker chart went away and he never got in trouble again. Of course we had no idea about any of this. I have no explanation where Michael came up with this phrase. He doesn’t either. It was a moment of inspiration born out of distress. A coping strategy of his own creation. It deserved Star Student of the Week just for creativity.
Sam and I have been in 150+ conferences over the years. I have only vague memories of different teachers and conversations. But I remember Michael’s Kindergarten conference just like it was yesterday. Which seems appropriate.
Because who could ever forget Mrs. Ruskin.