Thursday, November 17, 2011

Voluntary Commitment

         My mommy drinks wine. Is that healthy?” my daughter apparently asked a doctor-parent who volunteered to speak to her kindergarten classroom during the school’s Healthy Choices Week. “That depends,” the apparently scientifically credentialled dad responded. “How much does she drink?”
            I learned of this interaction not from an emergency call from either Child Protective Services or an AA sponsor, but from my child herself. I cannot speak as to why she queried this man about her mother’s once-in-a-blue-moon half-glass of wine, and not about my daily ingesting of jars of defatted peanut butter. And I cannot say whether this self-identified “health expert” parent is related to a child with whom she may someday want a playdate. But I can say that this experience should have been a wake-up call for me.
            No, my humiliation in absentia did not give me pause as to whether I should order a Shirley Temple in lieu of a Pinot Noir next time we go to a French bistro. And, no, I have not taken to wearing dark glasses at school drop-off to avoid the possible disapproving look of her teacher. (Though that wouldn’t be a bad idea because my eye make-up is usually not adequately blended at drop-off time.) What this incident confirmed to me is that I need to stay as far away from my children’s classrooms as possible.
            The “My Mommy is a Lush” scenario was not my first inkling that there is a very good reason I work at a job that is completely unrelated to my children’s educational milieu. The red flags were there early on, and wildly waving, alerting me to the danger of spending too much time at my children’s school. The traffic stops by our city’s finest, citing me for illegally stopping in a School Zone. Twice. The daily cursing under my breath (but apparently loud enough to be heard by a classmate’s sibling—sorry!) at the inept crossing guard who clearly did not ace his classes in, well, street-crossing. And the inability to recall the actual name of my child’s current teacher when calling the truancy office to explain why my child was late. And neglecting to read apparently critical flyers jammed into a designated folder in my child’s backpack. And sending my child to school with a large 15-pound pumpkin for a seasonal activity which, unbeknownst to me, involved my 5 year old needing to carry it around all day. I still don’t exactly understand that activity, because, fortunately, I was not there to witness it. But kudos to the parent-volunteer on duty who lugged the pumpkin around all day for my daughter!
            Even with all of the clues that I am not meant to spend more than three minutes at a time on an elementary school campus—and, trust me, I can do a drop-off in less time than that—for some reason I still tempt fate.
            I had a day off about a month into the school year, so I thought I would volunteer my Ph.D.-educated time and skills to my children’s school. After a frenetic set of emails with both children’s teachers (frenetic on my part, calm and reasoned on theirs), it was determined that I would help out in my kids’ classrooms for certain activities. This time around, I was savvy enough to insist that I help in the classrooms themselves. I learned the hard way in my last attempt to volunteer (two years earlier) that if a parent does not specify the desire to be able to eyeball their kid during the volunteering experience, the parent will get stuck in the Xerox room unjamming spelling lists from the copier.
            I made arrangements to spend half the morning at my daughter’s kindergarten class, the other half at my son’s 5th grade class, and then concocted a complex schedule to maximize my one-on-one time with each child individually once they were out of school, but without either of them having to go to the dreaded “after-care” for even a moment. Perhaps you see why the Ph.D. and intensive statistical training were needed. I explained the schedule to my children, who followed the plan well enough for my 10-year-old son to interrupt me with a look of horror: “You are not going to be in my class, are you?” Ah, well, er, yes dear, that was the plan. I provided an abridged history of my life leading up to becoming a working mother, and how I would derive great joy from this rare opportunity to share in my children’s educational enrichment. My son, whose listening skills usually run the gamut from distracted to more distracted, repeated his mantra: “No, seriously, you are NOT going to be in my class.”
            Well, since the point of the day was to demonstrate my support of their academic process, humiliating my pre-teen by sitting in his classroom was indeed negotiable. So after another set of one-sidedly urgent emails, his teacher devised a way for me to help out by sitting in the hallway, so I could be near enough to peek in periodically. She is brilliant.
            So, the big day arrives and I come armed with a travel mug of coffee and fully charged iPhone. It was hard to balance my oversized Coach bag onto those little, tiny kindergarten chairs, but after rearranging the art supplies and worksheets on the little, tiny kindergarten table I was assigned to, I was ready to roll. My daughter’s teacher had Scholastic book order brochures waiting for me to collate, group and distribute into the children’s folders. Little did she know I was a pro at such projects after many years in the 1980s stuffing envelopes for political campaigns. I was determined to collate, group and distribute better than any parent volunteer before me. So much so that it took a while for me to notice my daughter was craning her neck during story time to make sure I was still there. The worried look on her face did not match the thrill I was getting from imagining how I was besting all the mothers and fathers who stuffed folders before me. She looked anxious to have me there, not knowing when I was going to leave. When the time finally came, I was still on a high from not only the quantity but the quality of my pencil-sharpening, alphabetizing, and stamping. There was no doubt in my mind that I would move up to the top of the list as the most in-demand parent-volunteer. My daughter, however, was not savoring my victory; she was crying and had to be extricated from my leg by her teacher, with assurances that I would be back to pick her up later, for Phase II of Mommy’s Day Off. 

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