The teacher, a slight humorless woman wearing a Guatemalan shawl, held her stringy hair back. With the other hand, she held up a piece of black craft paper covered with orange scraps. “This,” she said, “is the kind of developmentally appropriate project your children have participated in for the past two weeks.”
It was our son’s pre-school “Open House,” and we sat in a semi-circle on miniature chairs, balancing paper cups of Martinelli’s unfiltered apple juice on our knees. To avoid laughing out loud, I looked down and took a sip from the tiny cup, grateful as I did that it wasn’t carbonated. As I swallowed, I stared through the windows at the eucalyptus trees moving in the breeze.
When I could risk speaking again, I leaned towards my wife to whisper something about developmentally appropriate glue, but then a father wanted to “process” a question about the kinds of snacks the children were permitted at school. The mother of the class bully asked how the teacher handled the “violence of some children who struggle with sharing.” Someone else wondered if kickball was too competitive when really what we wanted was to “encourage cooperation.” I remember getting sleepy, which is why I nearly missed the teacher’s final declaration of the evening. “I have another announcement,” she was saying. “I want you all to know that from now on my name is no longer Sharon Roberts, it’s Sharon Woman.”
It was the mid-1970’s—Nixon, Vietnam, Kent State, Cesar Chavez, Saul Bellow, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison, Feminism…Self-Esteem, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, I’m OK, You’re Ok, Earth Shoes, a PTA pamphlet called, “How to Tell if Your Child is a Potential Hippie…” In West Los Angeles, where we lived, it was possible to determine political positions by reading bumper stickers: “Support Your Local Police” or “Peace Now,” but if you didn’t want to bother with all the words, there was an easier equation—the more expensive the car, the more “liberal” its occupants.
However much the denizens of New York’s Upper West Side, Marin County, and other hubs of striving and preciousness protest, West Los Angeles in the mid-seventies was where irony went to die, where nouns became verbs, and where the art of parenting was born.
As our President is fond of saying, let me be clear. Public irony—in books, music, film, and on television—always finds breathing space. It was so in the seventies and remains so in 2011. But as we laughed at “All in the Family” and “Saturday Night Live,” and laugh at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the jokes seem never to be on “us.” Witness the number of cartoons and articles in The New Yorker that skewer its upper middle class, generally urban subscribers. We chuckle, but do we squirm?
We don’t because we take our preoccupations and ourselves too seriously, because we talk only to ourselves. We wear the same clothes and send our kids to the same schools; we drive the same kinds of cars and shop at the same markets; we eat at the same restaurants and attend the same “parenting” workshops. Does anyone see the irony of Tiger Mom sending her cub to the same school as Helicopter Mom sends her little soldier?
“Sharon Woman?” I said to someone, as we walked toward the parking lot that night.
“She wants to be her own person,” the woman said, visibly dismayed that I could have lived for so long in a cave. “Besides, I don’t care what she’s called as long as she gets Jason ready for kindergarten.”
“But they’re only three…” I said, as my wife elbowed me in the ribs.
Not so long ago, I walked through the park where the pre-school is still going strong, and where the former Sharon Roberts once helped my son make developmentally appropriate Halloween decorations. Maybe she was still there patrolling for inorganic snack chips, but all I could see were children sitting on the same small chairs eating their lunches.
A young mother in tight workout clothes hurried out of a silver Prius carrying a Whole Foods shopping bag. Except for the sound of the children’s voices, it was quiet, the park a pocket of tranquility in the sprawling city. The leaves of the big trees gleamed in the California sun. It might have been 1975.