The Reading Parent

Last week I was “The Reading Parent” for my stepdaughter Avery’s first grade class. One would think that such an official sounding title would bring with it the instantaneous respect among school children that it deserves. Like “President” or “Pharaoh” the mere utterance of my position, temporary though it may be, should’ve commanded an immediate silence from a room full of rambunctious six and seven year-olds.

“Boys and girls, The Reading Parent …of the United States!” I imagined the teacher announcing formally prior to my entering the classroom. Not so. This was my third term as The Reading Parent, and to date, Avery’s teacher has done little more than smile and let me know that they were just finishing up their art projects.

“Look class; it’s The Reading Parent,” she then will say. At that moment the glue-smeared faces of twenty pygmy-like beings snap in my direction. There’s a look in their eyes that’s an unnerving mix of both haunting and ravenous. And there I am, like a crippled fawn wearing a suit made from the same ingredients as a chicken McNugget. You can almost tell what’s going through their minds as they glanced back and forth between me and the safety scissors they’re clutching in their chubby little paws. “Do you think there’s a toy surprise inside?”

Traditionally this has always been the cue for me to take my seat at the head of the classroom. As I walk towards the undersized folding chair reserved for me, the natives mimic the cadence of my stride by pounding on their semi-circular tables while chanting “fresh meat, fresh meat” until their voices have reached a frenzied crescendo of unintelligible whooping and howling.

“You’re gonna squeal like a pig!” a shirtless, buck-toothed boy in overalls once yelled above the ruckus.

Intimidating as this may sound, I’ve learned to just ignore it. They can smell fear—drives ‘em wild. Even the slightest quiver in your voice while recounting the exploits of Little Red Riding Hood and they will go all Big Bad Wolf on you in a Hans Christian Anderson second. You can still see the incisor marks one unstable kid left in my shin after I made that mistake.

At the time, the teacher lifted her head from the People magazine she’d been nosing through. “He missed snack-time today,” she offered casually before then returning to her exposé on Kristy Allie’s rumored guest appearance on an upcoming episode of Survivor. This left me alone to fend for myself, and I shook the dwarf-like cannibal from my leg like a mailman would a dog much to the shrieking delight of his fellow tribesmen. It hadn’t occurred to me that The Reading Parent might also be a subconscious trigger word ordering him to mistake me for a gummy treat. All I can say is thank the stars for tetanus shots.

Since then, I’ve been able to suppress all outward signs of trepidation and perform with all the calmness of a lion tamer locked in a cage teaming with ferocious beasts. Sure the athletic cup and breast plate look like overkill, but the kids don’t seem to mind that my voice is muffled by a hockey mask as I read to them about King Arthur’s brave knights. These of course are just defensive measures meant to ensure my safety; the bad mitten racket on the other hand is purely for ceremonial purposes or the occasional, spontaneous pickup match. You never know where and when one will pop up.

Yet for all the uncontrollable wildness that has to be contended with, I secretly relish being The Reading Parent. It‘s one of the few thing I get to do that’s actually “parent-y.” I may not be quite as involved as some moms and dads who have orbiting satellites dedicated to keeping straight their family’s schedules and whereabouts, but that doesn’t mean being involved in my children’s activities isn’t important to me.

Were circumstances different, both my wife and I would be in attendance at every PTA meeting, throwing in our two cents as to whether or not only organic, free trade brownies should be accepted for the next bake sale. And believe me; I would love to shout out in front of God and everyone, “one thousand dollars!” to win the bid for the school’s auctioning of the exclusive “Prize Parent” parking space. Not only would it make me the best dad in the eyes of the world, but it would also ensure my stepdaughters finally received speaking parts in this year’s spring musical. Until then, however, I’ll have to endure another performance with the same designer outfitted kids slur simple sentences into a microphone like drunken celebrities at an awards show. For now, The Reading Parent is all I’ve got.

That’s why when my stepdaughters’ biological father stepped in to be The Reading Parent after moving back to town a month ago, I felt as if I had been replaced overnight in a quiet bloodless coup. The next morning prior to his taking over the title, Avery practically danced for joy in the streets as she picked out books for him to read.

“Do you think he’ll like this one?” She asked holding up an I Spy book three inches away from my face.

“Uh, probably,” I said, not really having a clue as I helped her out. “How about this one? It’s has foods that start with letters of the alphabet. Or this one, where everyone’s trying to catch that smartass pancake?”

Avery didn’t even look up from the bookcase she was rifling through. “Nooo. Those ones are for babies.”

True, they were. But it was hard for me not to imagine her dad slathered in butter and maple syrup as he stood in front of a bunch of vicious carnivorous. For the record, I have nothing against the girls’ father. He’s a likable fellow, and he loves his daughters. What’s more, the girls need their dad. So, that he wants to be more active in their day-to-day lives is a good thing, and for me to disparage that would only be petty and cruel.

Still, I hated the idea of relinquishing my title as The Reading Parent. The thought forced me to realize there would be other functions I needed to surrender as well, which made it hard for me to escape the notion that for the past several years, I had only been a stop-gap dad—a temp the agency sent over to sit behind the desk and the man the phone.

“Hello, Reading Parent’s office… No, I’m sorry. He’s out for the moment, but I’ll be filling in for a while. …Back? I’m not sure. Possibly next week maybe, but in the meantime I can help with your issue.”

Later that day, Avery beamed as she recalled the events of her dad’s performance as The Reading Parent, and despite my subtle but persistent line of questioning, it sounded as if none of the pint-sized Aborigines gnawed into any of his limbs either.

“Everyone liked his stories,” she added, her sole complaint being that time ran out before he could finish more than three of the twenty-some books she had lugged to school.

You knew this day might come. Mentally I began removing some of my possessions from The Reading Parent’s office. An unsure feeling took hold of me as I tried to redefine my duties as a stepfather, and I wondered if the agency would call me again.

This past week they did. Avery’s father was out of town, and she needed me to fill in. It was a last-minute deal that threw off my schedule, but I didn’t mind. Not really. I would be The Reading Parent again, if only for a few hours. Pulling into the school, I parked the minivan where I always do, in the Prized Parent space. It only ever gets used during festivals and musicals. Other than that, the spot’s always open for me.

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