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Straight face 

Looking unconventional wisdom in the eye

I don't remember much about my first-grade teacher except that she had a sweaty neck, yelled a lot and used to throw chalk at us. The year before, as a kindergartner, I could hear her screaming at her classroom all the way from across the blacktop, and I'd marvel at how loud the lady with the damp yellow bob could holler. The next year, when I walked into class on my first day of first grade and realized she would be my teacher, I tried not to grimace. I tried mightily to keep a straight face as I slouched toward my seat, but back then my face was as transparent as the promise of a politician, and it wasn't long before my snarky tow head became the primary target for flying chalk pieces.

I'm remembering this because my girl Mae is now in first grade, and yesterday she brought home her weekly behavior report, which is usually a glowing testimony to her future as a national ambassador or something, or at least that's what I think, inasmuch as a series of smiley faces could be interpreted as testimony.

Yesterday, though, I learned there was actually a repertoire of faces used to merit a child's behavior in my daughter's first-grade class, among them straight faces. "What's with all these straight faces on your behavior report?" I asked, and all of a sudden my daughter's face, which is itself usually smiley, stopped to stare at me with eyes as large as little lunar surfaces, her bottom lip quivering, her lashes suddenly balancing two perfect teardrops like large liquid diamonds. This, folks, is my daughter's guilty face.

Her ensuing explanation, punctuated by a series of precision-timed sort-of mini sobs, basically laid the blame on a collection of culprits that included, but was not limited to, everyone else in the world including Spider-Man.

I knew she was waffling, but really, I thought to myself, they're just straight faces. It's not like they're frowny faces, God forbid she ever got a frowny face. If she ever brought home a frowny face I might as well learn iPhoto right now so I can airbrush the prison tats out of our future family photographs. So thank God there's no frowny faces, just straight faces, and those aren't bad, really, they're just neutral, aren't they? Then in the middle of my own inner waffling, I heard her mention something about a pushing a classmate by the "owl-pellet table."

First, an owl pellet is a dry wad of indigestible animal parts that has been regurgitated out the gizzard of an owl, and they're full of little bones and teeth and beaks and feathers and other awesome things kids love. Seriously, nothing is cooler to a first grader than a big chunk of dried-out bird vomit, which might explain the eagerness with which the classmates gathered around the table, and might explain why my child pushed another child, and might explain why I thought for a few nanoseconds that kids will be kids and let's all go on with our straight-faced little lives as though nothing happened.

But then I remembered an incident I witnessed on a train when I lived in Zurich back when I was in my twenties and never thought I'd have kids at all, let alone care about straight faces. There were only four of us in the tram, including a mother with her 3-year-old toddler and a green-haired heroine addict covered in so many piercings it looked like his lips alone had been impaled by the contents of an entire tool box. I sat right behind the mother and kept peeking with trepidation at the drug addict behind me so I could make sure to duck in case he had a mind to unzip his pants and commence urinating.

But it was the 3-year-old who was the hoodlum. The little monster kept head-butting me from over his mother's own shoulder, and at first I said nothing because surely she would do something to control him, but instead she simply cooed at him with soothing German murmurings that had all the effect of a gnat's attempt to stop a Mack truck. Then, get this, the boy spit on me. It was a sizeable loogy that landed right at the corner of my mouth.

Of course I had to say something, so I did, expecting the mother to, at the very least, throw the troll out the train window in admonishment or something. But surprisingly she simply looked at me with the eyes of a bovine and said, "I don't believe in conventional discipline."

At that, I was agog. What else could I be? Then the train stopped, and the heroine addict rose from his seat to leave, but before departing he stopped to stand beside us. I commenced cowering, until thankfully his glare settled on the mother in front of me, and then -- I swear this is true -- he spit in her face.

"My parents," he growled as he turned to leave, "didn't believe in conventional discipline either."

So yesterday I made sure my daughter apologized to those she wronged. She continued to work the quiver-lipped and mooney-eyed angle, hoping to turn me to her side, but in response -- just as it was that time on the train all those years ago -- I remained surprisingly resolute considering the fact that it was all I could do to keep a straight face.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of two acclaimed books. Her website is www.hollisgillespie.com.

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