For parents of school-age children, autumn is a stressful time, beginning with that hellish odyssey known as Back-to-School Night.
This is when parents visit their child's classroom and sit hunched at the child's tiny, cramped desk and lose all feeling in their lower backs as the teacher explains what the class hopes to accomplish throughout the new year.
The talk is invariably upbeat. With June Cleaver smile firmly in place and eyes glowing like twin coals, the teacher sprinkles her address with phrases such as "new beginning" and "the uniqueness of each student."
She also may take the opportunity to express her joy at the substitution of "Satisfactory" and "Non-satisfactory" for the letter-grade system, which eroded the self-confidence of weaker students, was gender-biased and made them prime candidates for a life of sticking up 7-Elevens, etc.
At this point, if you're like many parents, you may find your attention . . . wandering, first to the "Reading is Good!" poster above the blackboard and eventually to thoughts such as: "I should do something with my hair."
For one thing, it is always 110 degrees in the classroom. Plus every few minutes you must fight the impulse to cry out as your knee slams into a bolt sticking out from the bottom of the desk, until finally a small pool of blood seeps through your tan Dockers.
In a day or two, the wound will redden and swell and there will be talk of tetanus shots and staphylococcal aureus.
Yet the threat of massive infection is but one of the many annoyances you face right now.
There's always one gabby mom who is somehow impervious to the fact that the room has the same breezy feel as a broom closet, and who regales the teacher with her own lofty theories on education. ("Hand puppets help the kids stay engaged, don't you think? Back when we lived in Montana, all the schools used them . . .")
There's always one adrenalized, Type-A dad who gets beeped and rushes from the room like he's the Secretary of Defense and Gen. Cedras' loyalists have been sighted stockpiling processed plutonium.
Again, Back-to-School Night is only the beginning of the ordeal for you parents.
Early in the new semester, you'll be struck by the realization that you've somehow become responsible for all the various fund-raising activities your child is expected to participate in.
The money is needed for (check one): a band trip, new computers, cheerleader uniforms, etc.
The need is always urgent. It is made clear to you that without the band trip, new computers, cheerleader uniforms, etc., the kids will languish and become dispirited, losing even more ground in the education race to their Japanese counterparts before eventually turning to drugs and heading for a life of straightening up the salad bar at Wendy's.
So you help your kid raise money.
You bring the kid's candy bars into your office and try to nab a few suckers. You decide to "be there" for your kid at car washes, pizza-selling campaigns, magazine subscription drives.
Your life will never be the same again.
This is a true story: I was tailgating at a college football game last weekend hundreds of miles from Baltimore.
Suddenly a sad-eyed boy of about 12 approached and said: "Hey, mister. Buy a candy bar to help St. Ignatius get playground equipment?"
My first instinct, naturally, was to elbow him out of the way and get to the macaroni salad. But in the soft afternoon light, I could see that his left arm was in a cast.
It was fractured, he said, when he tumbled from a tree while rescuing his kitty cat (awwww).
So I bought two of the stupid candy bars. I bought a Reese's peanut butter bar and a Hershey bar with almonds for a buck each. Even though I never set eyes on this kid before. Or heard of his school, St. Whatever.
It would have served me right if I'd happened on the boy an hour later, and found that he and his buddies had used the money to buy a tube of glue, which they were now snorting.
I'm not saying the kid would do such a thing. I'm just saying . . . never mind.
As if all this were not enough, early in the school year is when kids seem to need the most help with their homework.
The other day, my son, who is in seventh grade, asked for help in deciphering a linear graph, whatever that is.
I stared at the ditto. I stared at it and stared at it. And eventually I . . . dozed off.
When I came to, he was on the phone to a classmate, whose father apparently was Mr. Linear Graphs. Feeling inadequate and ridden with guilt, I slinked off.
It was almost like Back-to-School Night.
Although without the staph infection.