June 20, 2018
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Boys eagerly anticipate dinner with teacher

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

Ever since debuting “Dinner with the Smileys” in January, I’ve been providing obscure, teasing hints about upcoming guests for followers on Facebook. Some of the more popular clues have been:

“One of our upcoming guests wears gold.”

“An April guest shared a stage with C3PO (and, no, it’s not R2D2).”

“In June we will have ‘Dinner with the Smileys’ with a 37-foot tall monster and his friends.”

“Soon we will eat with Savages and wild animals.”

“One of our upcoming guests is not human.”

“One of our upcoming guests designed logos for Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.”

Readers get excited when they figure out the answers to these clues. Readers also get excited when they know what those answers mean: “The Smileys are going to have dinner with ____.” But the truth is some of the most anticipated dinners don’t work well in a riddle. That’s because some of the most anticipated dinners are the ones that will be shared with those who aren’t celebrities: namely, the boys’ teachers.

In January, for instance, I could have used this hint, “One of our upcoming guests can convince Lindell to put on his snow boots by himself.” But it wouldn’t have been superexciting — not, at least, in the same way that hinting about a monster is exciting. Yet the night Lindell’s preschool teacher came to dinner, you would have thought we were hosting the president. Or maybe even Elvis. Lindell was positively out of his mind with anticipation.

The older boys, who don’t jump up and down on the couch, as Lindell did, or slap their cheeks because they’re so excited, nonetheless are visibly happy about their own teacher’s turn at “Dinner with the Smileys.” And when you think about it, why shouldn’t they be? Once kids are school-age, they spend a greater percentage of their week with their teacher than they do at home. The schoolteacher is an enormous part of their life.

I remember knowing every sweater my second-grade teacher owned. I knew the smell of her perfume. And sitting in her classroom was like a second home. I was lucky, however, because my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Katabian, was also my mom’s friend. We went to the beach together and my brothers were friends with her sons. Many years later, Mrs. Katabian came to my wedding and my first book signing.

Today this sort of relationship seems unacceptable and even discouraged between a teacher and a student’s family. Indeed, the relationship stops just short of a 10-minute parent-teacher conference twice a year and perhaps phone messages delivered through the school secretary. The culture surrounding families and teachers has changed so much that when friends heard I was inviting the boys’ teachers nearly all of them said, “You can do that?”

I wasn’t sure. But I was determined to try.

As it turned out, the dinners we have with teachers are extraordinarily dynamic and enriching. Here is someone who knows a whole other side to my child that I never see. Here is someone who has special insight into his development. And here is someone who probably shares many of my frustrations — like this one’s constant throat-clearing and that one’s habit of tapping a pencil.

In many ways, the teacher and I are a team. We are both invested in the best interest of my child. How could I not invite such an influential person in my son’s life to dinner?

Besides, the teachers have much to gain from their visit as well. They get a better sense of their student’s home life and influences from siblings and parents. They finally can meet the dog their student writes about all the time. They can place the child in the context of his world.

Perhaps my expressing this will cause some educators to bang their head against a wall. “Now everyone is going to invite us to dinner,” they’ll say. Or, to be more precise, maybe local teachers will think, “Uh-oh, if I get a Smiley boy next year, it looks like I’ll have to go to dinner.”

The teacher-student-family relationship isn’t for everyone. Not every teacher wants or has the time to visit with families. But it seems to me that even a small effort toward some kind of relationship outside of the twice-yearly, 10-minute conferences could be beneficial on both sides.

My boys will never forget having their teachers come to dinner. It has been a highlight to this entire project. And you might never have guessed that from a riddle or clue. The experience has been so fulfilling, a reader and friend decided to invite her son’s kindergarten teacher to dinner this week. She will post about her experience at facebook.com/DinnerWithTheSmileys.

This month, reach out to someone influential in your child’s life — a teacher, a coach, a baby sitter — and invite them to dinner. Then tell us about it on the Dinner with the Smileys page.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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