It was late afternoon, and the children were shooting the breeze with one another in the kitchen.
"Only seven more days," a daughter exulted, "and then summer!"
"Hah, suckers, I get out before you," said her brother.
"Why, how long do you have?"
"Six days," he replied.
"Oh, big whoop."
"Anyway," put in another sister, "we're basically only watching movies now."
"I'm watching 'The Sound of Music' in music class," said the youngest girl.
"I'm watching movies in three classes."
"We're watching movies in, like, five classes -- "
I had only been half-aware of their conversation, but the last few exchanges had grabbed my attention. If someone had drawn a cartoon of the scene at that moment, I would have had a thundercloud over my head.
"Seriously, we're paying for that? For you to watch movies at school?"
"It's OK, Mummy -- !"
"Yeah, we like it -- !"
"They're educational -- !"
"These are a few of my favorite things," sang the youngest, to show what she'd learned.
"Humph," I said.
"Guys," said one of the girls, with a meaning look at her siblings, "Let's go do our homework now so that we finish the year nice and strong!"
This was an echo of the exhortations that her father and I have been delivering with tedious regularity. The children grabbed their backpacks and disappeared up the stairs.
"Humph," I said again and felt a surge of the peculiar helplessness that afflicts parents of schoolchildren. Whether you pay once for their public school education, through your taxes, or twice for private or religious school with after-tax dollars, moments arise when you must recognize the limits of your influence. For every parent distressed by raunchy books on a public high school reading list, there's another upset by the expensive bacchanals of private school.
Still feeling dyspeptic, I complained the next day to a couple of friends. "My daughters are watching movies in class," I humphed. "Seriously, I'm paying for that?"
One woman gave a wintry smile. "The teachers just took my son's entire eighth-grade class out for lunch," she said. "A restaurant lunch. A nice restaurant lunch. I was like, 'I'm paying for that?' "
"You guys are both pikers," scoffed a third woman. "You know what I just paid for? A fun fair. The school hired an ice cream truck, a pizza guy, face painting, moon bounces and pony rides. They even had a freaking petting zoo!"
We all laughed. "At our last elementary school there was Greek Day," this woman went on. "The teachers actually wore flowing Grecian robes, there was a tent for food, and a caterer was grilling kebabs on an open pit. Oh boy, were we paying for it."
I began to feel better about the movies.
"Maybe," I speculated, "it's not just spending gone wild, or time being squandered, but a valuable tool to build morale so that children who are excited to get out of school are just as psyched to return in the fall."
Everyone considered this.
"Nah," said the third friend.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.