There are many, many reasons I’m glad my tour of duty as an elementary school mother is over.
Sure, I enjoyed aspects of having younger children, like being able to actually understand their homework.
I also loved the field trips and school parties until the sugar police took over and turned school celebrations into a treatise of why food is the enemy. I’m still steamed about the time my Halloween cupcakes — with probably two inches of the yummiest butter cream frosting you’ve ever tasted, accessorized with a Nutter Butter cookie dipped in white chocolate to look like a ghost — were turned away at the third-grade classroom door for “exceeding the sugar guidelines.”
Besides the sugar wars, perhaps the No. 1 thing I don’t miss about elementary school parenting is Battle of the Books. Because it’s a battle alright — between the parents. For those of you not initiated in the ways of turning reading into a competitive blood sport, let me explain. Kids voluntarily sign up to participate in Battle of the Books. Teams are formed and parents volunteer to be the book coaches. Each grade level is assigned the same 10 (or so) books to read. Kids on the team pick at least two books they plan to be the “experts” on and study groups are formed so each team is prepared for the book battle, which usually takes place a couple months after the teams are formed.
If you’re thinking this sounds like super fun edu-tainment with the added benefit of helping kids hone their reading comprehension and retention skills then you couldn’t be a bigger idiot. Did you miss the “parents as coaches” part? Hello, red flag of doom right there. Like many things that end badly, this whole parents as book coaches thing seems like a decent enough volunteer gig. How hard can it be? You meet with the kids a couple of times a month, feed them a snack, discuss the books and bring on the battle.
Except that’s not how it goes down because being a book coach is a demanding job. Primarily because you have to read all the books. When I found this out I was stunned. I didn’t want to read some of these books 40 years ago and now not only was I required to read them, but I had to dissect them with a Machiavellian mindset. You see, the battle questions are not so much about the story as they are about the most nit-picky details of the book, like what color socks a character wore on page 83.
So, when you read the book you have to think about what questions will come from the Battle Chairperson/Judge, who usually is the most OCD member on the PTA board, and then make sure your team knows the answers. This is done by making question-and-answer sheets for each book. I naively suggested to other book coaches that we share our Q & A sheets — that way we (the mothers) don’t have to read all the books.
Holy paper cut, you would have thought I suggested that we start a swingers club. The outrage was that intense.
Maybe if I had known that some of these parents had been working on building their battle teams for years I would have kept my mouth shut. Little did I know that battle scouting starts in early elementary school. You’re not looking for the strongest readers, but the children with great memories. So, that kid on the field trip who won’t shut up about baseball stats — that’s who want on your team. And if you hear a rumor of a child who might have the tiniest bit of an eidetic memory, start your Battle of the Books team wooing.
When it comes time for the battle, the kids are just psyched to missing class. But for the book coaches, it’s game on. These parents are armed and dangerous. They know these books better than their child’s soccer schedule. It becomes not combat between the kids and their novel knowledge but a battle of wits between the parent coaches and the parent/book quizzer. Armed with all the books highlighted and flush with Post-It Notes, the parent coaches are ready to challenge not only questions and answers, but the subtle nuances in the ways the queries are asked and the responses judged.
At this point, it’s mom against mom and to the victor goes bragging rights because that’s what it’s about, right? A parent’s reading prowess. As I watched all this play out, I thought to myself, “Why don’t we just save ourselves a whole lot of time and trouble and just have one quickie meeting where we all share our SAT scores?” It sure would be a whole simpler and the end result would be about the same.