The language of diplomacy has nothing on the language of back-to-school night, that annual mid-September ritual that calls on parents to show (or in some cases, feign) interest in their children's education. While it's generally understood that when the Chinese, for instance, say a U.N. proposal is a "good idea" what they really mean is that the Security Council can take a flying leap, the average parent may find the shaded meanings of school-based English are far less easily discerned.
This is not to suggest there's anything wrong with parents or educators or even with back-to-school nights. On the contrary. When parents and guardians are involved with schools, everyone benefits. And teachers have obviously come to realize that making friends with the home front now means fewer problems later in the school year when the inevitable challenges arise. And, of course, it's a chance to sell wrapping paper - or, more precisely, motivate parents to get their children to sell wrapping paper and make tons of money for the PTA to pay for the essentials the school system should be providing in the first place.
The problem, however, is that educators are from Mars and parents are from Pluto, the dwarf and - thanks to modern astronomers - likely most insecure of the planets. Teachers show up at back-to-school night hoping to reassure parents that they can be trusted with their precious offspring's education. (This explains why they tend to speak in the calm, soothing and deferential manner of those who counsel the criminally insane.) Parents are there to demonstrate their commitment to that education, size up their children's teachers in the 15 minutes or so of actual contact (Our chief concern: How many long-term projects will my child tell me about the night before they are due?), and lose feeling in their knees from sitting in tiny kindergarten chairs.
So it should come as no surprise that when teachers and principals start talking about matters of curriculum and policy, parents are left flummoxed. What's needed is an interpreter who can explain, for instance, that when a school's administrator says the building is due for a renovation shortly, what's really meant is that in 10 years or so, when your child has graduated, a new temporary classroom will be installed over by the trash Dumpster.
Barring such a service, we can only offer the following guide to the most common back-to-school-night words and phrases and their English, more or less, translation.
Teacher: There will be no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level each night.
Translation: Figure about an hour of parent-child torture every weeknight no matter the grade and not counting whining, phone calls from friends, and prolonged "I don't get it" tirades.
We're trying something new this year.
Central office has rewritten the curriculum - again.
We're looking for volunteers.
Know how to run a copy machine?
The PTA is looking for volunteers.
Like to bake?
Please review and sign the student handbook.
So you can't sue us later.
We're expecting big things from this class.
Hopefully, better standardized tests scores than last year's bunch.
We're excited about the textbook.
We'll have enough of them to go around this year.
There are just a few things your child will need in the way of school supplies.
You'll be dropping a C-note at Staples.
You're always welcome to call.
The school has one phone line.
Or stop by.
The doors are kept locked.
Your child has a delightful imagination,
Pays no attention in class.
A lot of promise,
Not a candidate for gifted and talented placement this year.
And has already made an impression.