Out in the parking lot, we're making a pact. "Look, there will be no contest for Mother Whose Kid Gets the Most Stickers," I'm saying. "Can we just decide that right here and right now?"

"Absolutely," says Kaitlin's mom, with Zoe's mom and Tritan's mom falling into fast formation. I do believe we are genuine in the promise. We have enough to worry about. We've just weathered the first month of first grade and already feel bombarded. If we're going to make it to eighth-grade graduation, it's going to require the full power and collective strength of this, the mother herd.

The school building is red brick with little windows that pop out like wings. We've already escorted our kids safely inside to their lockers and onward into Mrs. Nickler's room. We're standing out here on a dew-drenched morning, and we wish like hell we knew what was going on inside. Our kids tell us almost nothing. We find it positively dumbfounding how bad first-graders are at explaining the details of their days, and we are thanking God for Zoe, since she, and she alone, has the reporting instinct.

We learned of Mrs. Nickler's sticker system from Zoe, when she told us she was one of the first kids to get called on in class.

"How many letters are in the alphabet?" Mrs. Nickler asked.

Zoe shot her hand in the air, and gave her response: "Well, all of them," she said.

Right! But . . . wrong. Miguel zoomed in with "26," earning the coveted sticker. (But then later he got a timeout for talking in class, so.) We, the mothers of the mother herd, agree that Zoe should have gotten double sticker acknowledgment for her thought-provoking answer, and we share the relief that Zoe did earn a sticker later that week. We're rooting for Kaitlin to get her first sticker, happy for Tritan for the stack he's acquiring, and, as for Anna's recent quadruple-sticker-day extravaganza, we are sharing the joy of that accomplishment together. "That's what I mean," Zoe's mom is saying. "I want all our kids to do great. I feel proud when I hear Kaitlin made it through a day without a timeout."

Hear, hear! We have been in one another's lives since 3-year-old preschool, we've seen our kids come so far, we are a family committed to growing together. I do believe we are genuine in the promise. We have so much more to worry about . . .

"Okay, so can someone please tell me what the heck a macron is?" Tritan's mom says.

"That's the little hat you put on top of a short vowel," I say, all proud and half-expecting a sticker for my phonics retention.

"No, sister, that's a breve," says Zoe's mom. "A macron is for the long vowel."

Oh, dear.

"Breve!" Kaitlin's mom said. "Macron! Who ever heard of these things!"

We are in the first month of first grade, and already we are having trouble with the homework. "I am a college professor," I am saying, my refrain these past weeks, as I try to hang on to the fact that I must not always have been such a dolt.

"We're supposed to code the vowels and consonants underneath with a V and a C," Kaitlin's mom says, "but Kaitlin's homework came back wrong because she coded the first consonant. What's up with that?"

"Oh, you don't code consonant-vowel-consonant," Zoe's mom says. "Just vowel-consonant."

"Why the hell don't you code the first consonant?" I ask. (Mrs. Nickler corrected my, er, Anna's homework the same way.) "Why? Why?" But I am drowned out by Tritan's mom's question about the difference between an open vowel and a plain, old, ordinary long vowel.

"Well, it's like in spi-der," Zoe's mom is saying, but none of us gets it. Zoe's mom worked for years as an elementary teacher so she's got the inside track. "And we're not up to the consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. We're just starting with the vowel-consonant pattern."

"Oh, this is about patterns!" I say. I thought we were supposed to be considering sounds, not patterns. I was in the wrong . . .

paradigm. "I am a college professor. In an English department!"

"Don't you think they should have, like, a little seminar for parents?" Tritan's mom says. "Just give us some of the basics in private, so we can look competent in front of our kids?"

We all agree, but the problem is we have been talking too loud. A herd of second-grader moms is fast approaching from the direction of the playground, and we do believe they may have overheard us. This is so embarrassing. Doofus moms who don't know a macron from a breve.

"Sssssh!" We stand in silence, looking at our shoes, as they pass. We can smell their judgment upon us, a stink bomb.

"We have got to stick together," Kaitlin's mom whispers. "We have got to support one another."

Long live the herd.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.