Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thanks a Million, Literally: Report from a Foot Soldier in the Mommy Volunteer Corps

For regular people, May is a month of flowers and fun and celebration.  For women with school-aged children, it is the start of an unrelenting slog of baking, gifting and volunteering that ends only on the last day of school, which shimmers like a desert oasis in the distant reaches of June. Eventually, it will all be over, but first we have to survive May. We’re not even one-third of the way through this month, and already I’ve whipped up treats for Teacher Appreciation Day, stood in Thank You Staff! breakfast serving lines, organized gift donation collections for beloved coaches, and attended more than my share of “one last” concerts, recitals and banquets. Just thinking about the upcoming multi-layered events of high school graduation makes me want to pour gin on my morning Cheerios and call it day already.

The first thing I should say is that any effort put forth toward thanking the usually thankless souls who attempt to educate my children is well worth it.  At a Teacher Appreciation Day event this year, a public high school staffer told me, "I felt so bad all winter.  It seemed like all I heard on the news was what a bad person I was for being a public employee.  When my alarm went off this morning, I thought, 'Someone is going to appreciate me today!'" I wished I could offer this woman a limo and spa day, instead of bagels & cream cheese in the Media Center; she deserved it.

My children have attended a variety of institutions of lower and mid-level learning in what passes as their educational careers to date, and I’ve observed that, if you really want to figure out what a school is all about, forget the curriculum and the web site and do some research on the volunteers. In my day, I’ve lent a helping hand (or had it slapped) at schools whose culture ranged from Help Us We’re Desperate, to Go Away We Don’t Need Anything from the Likes of You, to Nasty Sorority Hazing Re-enactments, Our Specialty.

My favorite by far was the Help Us We’re Desperate school, the first one Emma attended. A city-based public school, it had free lunch participation of around 85%. Finding a mommy volunteer with a car, a command of English and some free time was rare, so the few of us who could manage to show up were treated like modern-day manifestations of Virgin of Guadalupe. (“A parent? Here to HELP?” the overworked teachers would practically sob in gratitude.) Whatever I did seemed to be just right – from hanging kindergarten artwork (crookedly) to serving cookies at conference night (without plastic gloves), all my work was applauded and thanked, inordinately.

So, I got cocky. The next school my kids attended was what I had always thought of as the little parochial school at the corner, but which, I soon learned, attendees regarded as a bastion of Exclusivity, Privilege and Tradition. In these halls of values-based Christian education, my Chinese-born daughter coped with Mary Margaret Kelly, the little darling who spent third grade calling Emma “Flat Face” and creating clever imitations of Asians by pulling up her own eyes at the corners.

Deep in the mommy trenches, I had my own set of bullies with which to contend. I volunteered in Mary Katherine’s kindergarten class for post-Christmas-program costume folding. Happily lost in my work (sloppy but enthusiastic, that’s my motto) I was startled to hear actual tskking behind my shoulder. “We don’t fold that way HERE,” a mommy sniffed, elbowing me aside to finish the job correctly. It didn’t take me more than a few more episodes like this to teach me a valuable lesson – don’t volunteer at the kids’ school, ever. 

These were clearly mommies of a different order than the happy, carefree sorts I’d encountered at the public school. It seemed as if these women, who had probably all been presidents of their own sororities, were now vying for some top spot in a new pecking order. As my brilliant friend Nancy Pratt says of these Mombies, “Honey, get off the float; the homecoming parade is over.” 

So, to spare myself from repeated bitch slapping, I concentrated my efforts elsewhere. I’d been a school volunteer no-show for so long that, when Emma entered high school, I was cautious. Big, inclusive, flaky and flexible would be the four words that best describe her high school, however, and I soon found that my volunteering efforts had returned to the status they’d had when Emma was in second grade – sorely needed and unconditionally appreciated.

Still, I always think it's a good idea to exercise caution when dealing with large groups of well-educated, perimenopausal women, who constitute the bulk of the high school’s volunteer corps. As a mommy foot soldier, I’ve learned to arrive on time, keep my eyes down and continue to ask, “What can I do next?”

I usually raise my hand for tasks that involve moving tables and lifting chairs, as those require the lowest level of skill and zero aesthetic input. Because no matter how nice the group, there’s always an art history major lurking somewhere, and then you’re doomed to endless rearranging. I was recently helping to set up a silent auction and found myself paired with a woman who actually stood back and made a little director’s square with her hands as she surveyed the merchandise. “We just need to fluff these up a bit,” she mused, and at the mention of “fluffing up,” my blood ran cold. I quickly skedaddled and found some tables to move. I have a theory on table-moving, too – I try to blend in with a couple dads right away. Their artistic standards are low and they usually carry the heavy ends of the tables without complaining.

The other trick I’ve learned as a mommy volunteer is to never, ever have an opinion, especially about anything having to do with color schemes. I’ve seen women practically come to blows over shades of teal. Leaving one’s ego at the door is the best way to survive a volunteer stint, since every mommy (but me) arrives with unwavering opinions on matters of decor and styling. At that same silent auction setup, I received specific instructions to place one doo-dad on top of each program at the table settings. (The mommy made me repeat the order back to make sure I understood.) I dutifully maneuvered around the room, completing my task. Fifteen minutes later (while moving a table with a burly dad), I noticed a new woman moving through the ballroom, carefully piling all the doodads up in the center of the tables. Good foot soldier that I am, I hardly noticed.

I can guarantee that I will never volunteer to chair one of these gigs, because I just don’t have that many opinions. Recently, while setting up at an ungodly early hour for a staff appreciation breakfast, I asked the chairwoman if I should put out a stack of napkins I’d found. “All but those green ones,” she told me firmly.  “I just can’t stand pastels!” But then, because this was the flaky public high school, she added, with a self-deprecatory chuckle, “I guess I’m just neurotic that way.” 

I hardly heard her, busy as I was picking out the pastel shades. As long as she didn’t ask me to fluff anything, I was happy to obey.

1 comment:

  1. Now that you are almost an empty-nester, that career in stand-up comedy is calling!