It was my worst nightmare: a grown woman in a red and black superhero cape and matching mask was “flying” through the aisles of my son’s public school auditorium. As she flapped by, she shouted, “The PTA wants
YOOOOUUU!” I slid down in my seat, hoping we
wouldn’t meet eyes.
I never imagined, looking into the eyes of my tiny baby five years earlier, that one day that baby would enter kindergarten, and I would be subject to the total loserdom of joining the Parent-Teacher Association. The PTA had always conjured up in my mind pictures of tan women in tennis skirts putting an unhealthy amount of energy into the details of the Fun Fair.
I thought that maybe I could get away with being the parent on the sidelines, the cool one. Yet here I was, sitting in the auditorium at the year’s first PTA meeting. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember why I had signed up for the PTA. And Superdork in the cape wasn’t making me feel any better about it.
“Your child needs YOU to be a superhero in his life!” she cheered.
Then I remembered why I was there – my father, a public school history teacher for forty years, insisted I join. “The more involved you are at school, the better Holden will do,” he’d told me.
So here I was, begrudging superhero for my son.
When the superhero tore off the mask and revealed her “true identity” as PTA president, I started to tune out. I was expecting to hear how we’d be doing neat little projects around school, like cupcakes for the holidays, maybe a fundraiser selling those delicious chocolate bars, maybe a spring fair. Everyone does a spring fair, right?
I could not have been more wrong. She began rattling off a list of programs – Art Education, Environment and Beautification, Mentoring, After-School Tutoring, the Book Fair, the Science Fair – that the PTA fully supports. She asked for 400 volunteers straight away to staff the weekend-long House Tour fundraiser – a project that, last year, raised $200,000 for the school. Two hundred grand? I thought I must have misunderstood – thoughts of flat-screen TVs and fancy playground equipment swirled in my head. But, when a parent asked what they did with the money, the PTA president said they bought dry erase boards for each classroom. Before last year’s House Tour, the teachers hadn’t had anything decent to write on.
I could not have been more wrong about what the PTA does.
She also said they needed daily volunteers to come and sit with the kindergarteners at lunch. I raised my hand to ask why they would need help. She told me that lunch was the teachers’ only planning period, so most days there was only one teacher assigned to watch 150 kindergarteners for the entire lunch period. The school did not have the budget to hire more help, and little ones had a difficult time opening milks or ketchup packets by themselves.
No one to help my son open his milk? He definitely did not have the dexterity to open it by himself. I felt myself straighten up in my seat.
Another woman got up to speak. She was not wearing a costume of any sort. Nor was she wearing a tennis skirt. Actually, she kind of looked like me. She introduced herself as Shari, the parent volunteer coordinator.
“Here is the Volunteer Database,” she said and held up a giant black three-ring binder. I thought, Oh, boy, here we go. The black book of over-organization, exactly what I feared from these people. “After you volunteer for anything at the school, please log your hours in this book.” She explained how parent volunteer hours were closely linked with special grants for the school, grants that could buy the school things they desperately needed – like paper, gymnasium equipment, and special classes like music.
Music class for elementary school children is no longer a given? I found myself growing outraged.
She held up a binder. I thought, Here we go.
All these volunteer hours adding up in the big, black book went for things that I had wrongly assumed were extras. Our particular school uses 90% of their yearly budget for teachers’ salaries (which we all know are measly to begin with). The other 10% of the budget has to stretch far enough to take care of everything else. At my first PTA meeting, I realized that blackboards, music class, and basketballs for the gym are things public schools no longer take for granted. And so parents have stepped in.
Many more women followed Shari’s example that night, standing up and explaining their individual projects, each one a massive undertaking, like a reading program for kindergarteners, a Saturday math contest called Math Maniacs, and classroom decorations. (Can you imagine cinder-block kindergarten classrooms with nothing on the walls? They look like prison cells.) The women all seemed extremely competent, well-spoken, and definitely organized. That was it. I totally drank the Kool-Aid.
When the meeting was over and everyone was filing out, I got out of my chair, walked down to the front, and asked which committees needed the most help.
I am semi-proud to say that, in recent months, I have transformed myself from skeptic to zealot. I show up for lunch duty (and recess!) once a week, and I’m helping to put together a book of student artwork and poetry (working title: Reflections). I even volunteered to work the popsicle booth at the Fall Carnival.
I arrived at school for volunteer lunch duty one day and parked behind a minivan with a bumper sticker that read, “Get involved! The world is run by people who show up.” A few months ago, I would have scoffed. Now I thought, Amen, sister.