I asked the 13 1/2-year-old girl who had plunked down beside me in the half-filled gym if she had heard what the principal had just announced -- over the defective P.A. -- about the band's next number.
"No, I was not listening and I couldn't hear anyway," she snapped. She must have thought she was talking to her mother.
Now that my kids have all reached -- and will, it is hoped, cross -- high school's threshold, it is time to pass on to the next parental generation the survival techniques I have developed for elementary and junior high school concerts and awards ceremonies.
Obviously it is important to appear attentive, both for your child's benefit and your own image. So reading, pushups in the aisle, or doing "the wave" with whomever is seated next to you are out. You do, after all, care about your child's development. But there are limits to the pressures one can ask eardrums and glutei maximi to bear in one evening.
Lacking any formal training in meditation, I've perfected a method combining what one might characterize as recall of lost youth with somewhat ordinary daydreams. (My current favorite: starting a company that will specialize in sending 13 1/2-year-old girls into frozen orbit for five years or so.) If you do this in an organized fashion, you will be able to appreciate the evening by selectively tuning out the band when, for example, it is playing a march whose musicians sound as if they are spread over three blocks.
I concentrate sequentially on the following, which you might try at the next school event:
* The Program: You probably just sat on this. It is generally the first thing to catch the parent's eye, right after your child, of course -- second row, third kid from the end, the one with one brown and one black sock who just wiped his nose on his sleeve. Read the playbill through two or three times, but look beyond the words. Imagine, for example, what the kid looks like who designed the cover. If his name is Malcolm you have a good start. Who was the resident artist when you were in 6th grade? Ours was named Roger. Roger used to entertain the class once a week by drawing a new type of perpetual motion machine that his brother had read about in Mad magazine. Roger and I used to imitate the Everly Brothers. We did not know what they looked like.
* The Audience: Where you sit is important. I prefer the back of the room, from which there are several demographic exercises you can perform. Count the rows of chairs; now count the number of heads in every fourth row; do not count heads that slipped in after the program began, or count more than once those that moved -- with their bodies -- during the performance. Multiply the number of heads by four, and multiply that product by the number of rows for an estimate of audience size. Next, count the number of student participants. What is the student-to-spectator ratio?
Now sort out the audience's socioeconomic characteristics (apparent age, ethnicity, marital status, income, alligator shirts per square person). Do these characteristics reflect what you would expect from those of the students? If not, why not? How would you correct this? Insert your own theory of social engineering.
* The Facility: About halfway into the program -- the band is about done demonstrating its sight-reading ability by playing a song the members have never seen before -- I downshift a bit by concentrating on the walls. Does the artwork, if any, seem incongruous with the program content? For example, the wrestlers on our gym walls might be more suitable to the athletics award program, which is usually held in the cafeteria, than to the music of Franz Schubert, or is he now part of Cyndi Lauper's tag team?
Now scan the ceiling and corners of the room for the largest structural defect you can find. If you brought your telephoto lens, take a picture of the defect, assuming you can do so inconspicuously. Make a note to check the condition of the defect at the next program you attend. If it has gotten worse, tell the principal. Imagine yourself saving the lives of all the people in the building.
* The Participants: How many kids do you know by sight? By name? Which do you wish did not live in your block? In your school district? How many of the parents do you know? How many are sitting together as couples? How would you correct that? Insert your own theory of interpersonal relations.
Pick out three kids you do not know. Survey the audience and guess whose offspring they are, checking your accuracy after the program. If you are attending an awards ceremony, try to guess the same three students' first names before they are called. David, Josh and Jessica are fairly easy. Dylan, Amin and Minda are impossible.
Imagine yourself once again the age of your child. Of the kids on stage, who would be your friends? Whose name would you fill in on the underside of your favorite seashell, the one you inscribed "I love . . .", but kept hidden from your friends, until one of them accidentally tipped over your goldfish bowl, where you had it hidden. Would you have dressed punk? Would your parents have insisted on Toughskins when only Levi's or Lees were in? Which teacher would you have a crush on?
As the chorus files onto the bleachers for its final number, pushing the girl at the end onto the floor, try to forget your most embarrassing moment at a school event . . . the one where you anonymously exchanged presents at the end of the program, and everyone giggled at the poor girl who had gotten the package of barrettes that you had brought.
Clap. You have survived, as has your gluteus. The program is over. Your child beams, kind of.
Mercifully, the 13 1/2-year-old uses an alternate exit.