The Volunteer Volunteer

A Helpful How-To

The minute I found out that my daughter was serving as Room Mother for my grandson's kindergarten class, it immediately brought back memories of my own days as a young mom, when I was called into active duty in the volunteer army at Merriman Park Elementary. I was a really gung-ho foot soldier, but believe me it didn't start out that way.

The truth is, when my children first started to school, I was blissfully ignorant of what they did there. I'm serious. It didn't matter to me what handwriting method they used, or how they added fractions. It mattered only that they were at school, which is a lovely place for children to be. (Otherwise, they tend to fill their time dragging water hoses into the living room, or stringing GI Joe and Barbie to the ceiling fan.)

But then one day, everything changed. I moved into a school district with a highly active parent volunteer program. The moms actually wanted to be involved.

Imagine. A mom at school. I had experienced this phenomenon only once myself, back when I was in the fourth grade and my teacher sent me to the library for a book. I walked in and there, standing behind the counter was my very own mother. I couldn't have been more stunned if I'd seen Queen Elizabeth driving a UPS truck! Forty-seven years later I'm still not over the shock.

At my children's new school, however, not only did everyone volunteer, they even vied for the position of Room Mother, and wrestled for every job available on the sign-up sheets. Not surprisingly I got caught up in the competitive frenzy too. I volunteered to take the kindergartners to the veterinarian to see a dog's diseased heart in a jar, and I also agreed to roast three 20-pound turkeys for a re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving.

Worst of all, on the "Tasting the Alphabet” sheet, I was the idiot who signed up to bring a food that began with the letter "X”. (Incidentally, I now know that the king crab belongs to the anthropoid order of Xiphosura.)

But wait – there's more! Over the next few years I booted up computers, served tacos in the cafeteria, checked brakes at the Bike Rodeo, judged potato-spoon races at Field Day, and painted blue Panthers on hot, sweaty faces at the Fall Carnival. I shelved library books, decorated the trophy case, and baked cupcakes for the Election Day bake sale.

Why on earth did I do all this stuff? For that matter, why do any of us do it? Some moms, I suspect, like the praise they get for putting in the longest hours, selling the most tickets, painting the brightest banner, or organizing the biggest fund-raiser. Others can't bear to be away from their precious children. A few simply enjoy giving orders. Personally I volunteered just to keep my sanity. Rather than succumbing to long mornings on the sofa watching reruns of "Dynasty” I bolted out the door and raced up to the school pleading, "Give me something to do!”

But just because we moms are eager to serve doesn't necessarily mean we're all qualified for the job. I once asked a friend of mine who taught third grade what makes a good volunteer. She told me about one saintly mother who came to school twice a week to help a little boy (not her own) who couldn't speak English. By the end of the year, the child was on the honor roll, and had done well on his standardized test (in English!) That mother's volunteering was not high-profile or even glamorous. But no one could argue its value.

And how did my friend respond when asked to describe a bad volunteer? "Those who come up here with their own agenda and never bother to ask what I need; those who chat and giggle and disrupt my teaching time; and those who (ugh!) bring little brothers and sisters along.” Point well taken, thank you. 

So should you volunteer in your child's school? Absolutely! If you've got the time and energy, there's work to be done. Do it cheerfully. Do it humbly. Just be sure to do it before your kids get to Junior High!

I figured that one out the day I walked into the cafeteria when my son was in the seventh grade. Immediately, 300 pairs of eyes looked at me as if I was a 12-foot-tall green Xiphosura with two heads and acne. I heard a whisper rustle across the room, "Oh, gross! It's someone's mom!”

I certainly got the hint. Let some other poor Xiphosura sell those pencils in the supply room. My volunteering days were over. Within hours I was right back where I started. My kids were at school, which was a lovely place for them to be. And was at home where I belonged – on the sofa with the Carringtons.

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