Parent-teacher conferences are bizarre rituals comparable in intensity to college registration.

I remember with trepidation standing in line for registration at the University of Utah, then entering a huge room containing a plethora of desks and signs and trying to figure out how to beat other students to the punch by reaching as many of those desks as possible and acquiring just as many signatures before I was through.By that time I was a nervous wreck. But I was happy because I knew I had passed the first test of a successful college student.

I had a class schedule.

Fortunately, telephone registration has replaced that rite of passage on most campuses and students can reserve their nervous energy for the classroom.

But parents still must go through a similarly wrenching experience each time they meet with the teachers of their children for consultation.

Recently, Marti and I made one of our regular journeys, first to the junior high, then to the high school, to talk to our kids' teachers. At the junior high we were in a gym that was eerily reminiscent of my college registration experience - numerous desks with signs and lines of worried-looking parents patiently waiting their turns.

Recognizing time was of the essence, we made two lists and split up, agreeing to meet later and talk about the results. All things considered, we did pretty well - covering all the necessary ground.

We happen to be lucky parents. None of our kids have any serious problems in school, and so what we hope to accomplish by going to these sessions is to establish some rapport with the teachers and get some tips about small problems that might improve classroom performance.

We were not too encouraged by a gym teacher who said our son needs more points in both running and swimming in order to get into the A category and then spoke in ambiguous terms about what he actually teaches in class.

What we enjoyed the most were those teachers who chose to praise our kids and contribute little quotable gems such as the algebra teacher who said, "If I were Charlie's parents I would be very, very proud indeed!"

Yes! It's just a little encouraging sign that your offspring may have what it takes to make it in the outside world.

At the high school the quarters were less desirable - seemingly hundreds of thousands of teachers crammed into a tiny cafeteria with desks in lines instead of against the wall, with appropriate signs.

My hands were sweating and I was experiencing severe claustrophobia before it was over.

Again, we split up for maximum success. While waiting in line I tried to read Time magazine, but found it hard to concentrate because of a high noise level and acquaintances who persisted in patting me on the back and sharing little witticisms.

Some women were shocked that I would come when they had been unable to drag their own husbands there. Despite my hidden misery, I smiled and humbly accepted the compliment.

Marti and I each made it to the front of several lines and had some brief and sometimes productive conversations.

The parental highlight occurred during our very last interview - one in which Marti and I joined together again - a little worried about how much time the whole thing had taken and pretty sure that this last line was just never going to move.

It was worth waiting for. This teacher praised our high school son with such verve that it stunned us. She characterized David as "classy, charismatic, hard working - a real gentleman." She was so effusive it brought tears to my eyes.

As we drove home, enervated, we wondered aloud if these marvelously effective students of ours could ever learn to do some of the truly simple things - like clean their rooms and make their beds - and then we said something more profound about the "things that matter most."

It took a few hours, but something clicked. We finally found out what parent-teacher conferences were all about.