On a rare day off from work, I volunteered at my son’s elementary school. Even though I was going to be amongst hundreds of unemployed 6-11 year olds, I made sure I was dressed in business casual so my son’s teacher and peers would perhaps see me as a no-nonsense type who possibly possessed advanced skills, and I would get assigned a really cool volunteering assignment, like color-coding flash cards or laminating worksheets. Basically, I was angling for anything but grading papers.
There is something about being at an elementary school that can be very unsettling for those of us with still-raw memories of their own early school experience. If I screw up being a Mom Volunteer at school, will it go on my permanent record? I felt like I was in trouble right off the bat--It didn’t even occur to me that I was supposed to sign in at the office, let alone put on a bright red “Visitor” sticker. While the front office staff did not officially “tsk tsk” at my attempt to breeze through the office, they clearly were not going to have any rebellion here. An Insubordinate Mom would not reflect well on the child, who will in turn never be nominated for the school’s monthly “Best Citizen Award” because of his parent’s own poor display of Citizenship. I entertained the notion of signing in as somebody else’s mother, but had visions of them asking me for ID, and then being publically shamed by the assistant principal on the PA system once my ruse was discovered.
I put on the sticker with a smile, hoping to get bonus points by commenting on the charming bubble-letter font used to identify me as an oversized interloper at an elementary school. The principal was just getting up from his desk, so I pretended to be acutely interested in a flyer for Chess Club as he walked by me out of the office. Cleverly greeting the principal would be way too much pressure for a not-fully-caffeinated Monday morning. An awkward pause or poorly received attempt at lighthearted small-talk could send my son’s academic future down the toilet. Once he was gone, I scurried out of the office into the perfectly symmetrical courtyard, enclosed by identical looking structures where the classrooms are housed.
I have been to my son’s school many times, but have never entered the school grounds from the same entrance more than once. I think finding the classrooms (no directional signs appear anywhere) is a test to see if your kin is genetically predisposed to have a semblance of intelligence and spatial relations skills. Well, hopefully no one will spill the news to the school department that I finally found Room 102 only after being pointed in the right direction by a first grader with a bathroom pass. I took a deep breath and rapped on the door several times. When there was no answer, a slight paranoia came over me that the teacher had dared the classroom to play a practical joke on me by hiding under their desks and pretending to be at recess. I peeked in the room, calling “Helloooo???” in my most cheerful-sounding falsetto. Nothing.
After convincing myself that I was not re-experiencing a traumatizing school-age prank from my own childhood, I regrouped and went back to the front office. I explained to the efficient front desk administrator how I was pretty sure this was the day I was supposed to volunteer, but maybe there was some sort of miscommunication because no one was in the classroom. The staffer sensed my insecurity and did nothing whatsoever to assuage my anxiety. “Really, no one there?” she asked, gesturing in such a way to indicate that this was a great mystery to be solved. “Well,” I apologized, ”maybe I just didn’t see them. I mean, I didn’t look all around the classroom, just opened the door and didn’t seem to see anybody.” The staffer wondered if perhaps the class was at the principal’s “Discipline Assembly” in the Multipurpose Room, and why didn’t I go check there? Already feeling humiliated at not being able to locate 35 pre-teens in a 20X20 room, I didn’t have the nerve to ask for directions to the “Multipurpose Room,” but I thought how if the sign on the door of the room spelled “Multipurpose” as two words, I would have no choice but to go back to the office and inform them of this engraved grammatical error; however, a hyphen between “multi” and “purpose” might not be worth ruffling any feathers. My mind then wandered to thinking that if someone donated a wad of cash to the school, they could get the “Multipurpose Room” named after them, as long as the bequest didn’t specify only one purpose, because then it would have to be called a “Singlepurpose Room,” especially if the money were given anonymously. My focus was completely shot at this point and the thought of Xeroxing or sharpening pencils was getting more and more daunting as the moments ticked away.
I ventured back into the courtyard and stood for a minute as though I were contemplating the dimensions of the courtyard for a renovation project. I was hoping that another bathroom-bound boy would take pity on me and show me where the Multipurpose Room was. Alas, a custodian sensed my confusion and offered to escort me there personally.
The Multipurpose Room, despite its many purposes, had only one entrance. The principal was standing at a podium just feet away from the open door. He was on a roll, pointing at his Powerpoint slide and explaining an awkward acronym meant to serve as a mnemonic device for elementary school students to remember not to fight, cheat, embezzle or chew gum while at school. The teacher was sitting across the crowded room and did not initially see me standing at the doorway; however, the principal and the 100 members of the school’s fourth grade certainly did, and turned around in unison to stare at me. I had flashbacks to the time I gave a presentation in class not realizing I had a visible booger in my nose. I tried to scan the room to find my son, but the teacher had already started her journey toward me, stage-whispering “excuse me” every few kids and trying not to trip. When she finally reached me, my mind went completely blank except for the thought that she looks exactly like my son’s teacher from third grade, and I suddenly couldn’t remember what her name was. I should have crammed more for this outing. Going back to elementary school is not something that is covered in graduate school… but for those of us who double-degreed in parenting and academics, seminar on how to be an adult in a child’s setting would have been a class with actual real world applications. But I digress……