455. When You See a Teacher in Town

In our culture, it’s customary to acknowledge people when you happen to get eye contact with them. If you don’t know them, you say “Hi,” and maybe talk about the weather a little. S. I. Hayakawa (whom I admired as a student of language, though I didn’t like his politics) called this “the language of social cohesion.” It’s meant to keep us in touch with each other, but not to communicate anything significant. The weather is rarely a hot topic.
When you see someone you know, you’re expected to talk about more than the weather. If you know each other, you have more in common than how
meteorological conditions are affecting your day. So you can talk about politics, how your mother is doing in the hospital, whether your job is any better than the last one you had – the possibilities for non-meteorological discussion are endless.
Your child’s teacher is someone who has at least one thing in common with you. You know each other in at least one way, and unless you happen to have connected with this person in other ways, it’s natural, when you see him/her in town, to ask, “How’s Methuselah (or whatever you’ve named your child) doing?” You may already have a pretty good idea of how Methuselah is doing. In fact, you may even have had a conference with this teacher quite recently. But you’ve already made eye contact, and you’ve got to talk about something.
The teacher could just say, “Fine,” and treat the question as a social synonym for “How are you?” But that’s risky. Teachers aren’t really supposed to be thinking about the children in their classes every minute of the day, but parents like to know that their children are important enough to be substantial topics of conversation. And so there’s usually a little parent/teacher conference as the two conferees pick out groceries or wait in line at the bank.
It may be that both of you are thinking, I don’t want to talk about this now. But neither of you has what it takes to say that. You each want to make sure the other knows that you spend plenty of time thinking about the child – that neither parenting nor teaching is just a chore you have to get over with so that you can get on with the parts of life you’re REALLY interested in.
But I’m sure the two of you do have other things in common. And if you talk about those other things, you won’t be betraying the child you have in common. The bank, the supermarket, or wherever you are isn’t the best place for a parent/teacher conference; neither of you is really there for a conference, and you’re in public, for Pete’s sake. Why not probe a little, get to know each other a little? Or you could even talk about what a nice day it is.

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