“Every woman in her lifetime should be a lover, a wife, a mother, and a class mom,” a friend once remarked. Right or wrong as that friend was, I’d decided that three out of four was good enough, and tossed into the trash the PTA sign up form I’d been filing there since my daughter had entered kindergarten.
By the end of third grade, I was caught red-handed.
“Are you ever going to be Class Mom?”
“Why, you want me to be?”
My daughter crossed her arms and gave me one of my own looks.
“Fine, but I’m sure a lot of people sign up, so if they don’t pick me, I can’t help that.”
“It will work out,” she said, and skipped off, leaving me to chuckle at her borrowing of my phrases, too. Also, to stew in my own shame. She was a great kid, and she deserved my time, even if I had forfeited every second of it since her birth, and by default, come to question my own self-worth outside the home.
Stay-at-homers understand. Call yourself an artist all you want. Hell, start an Etsy shop. Ineptitude will still find a way to creep in. Banal times over the years when, say, the lentil loaf emerges from the oven not the “moist, protein-packed dinner” the recipe promised so much as a brick of inedible blandness. Times when the best shirts shrink in the dryer – or the Amex bill arrives, proving once again that no amount of shopping will fill the void in your soul. Times when it’s tough not to identify, microscopically and parasitically speaking, to one-celled Protozoa.
With middle school looming, then high school, then – good lord – college, I’d begun to secretly worry if I didn’t get out there sooner than later, I’d wake up one day with a skillset as useful as a VCR.
Which is why I’d steered clear of the PTA.
Obligatorily, I’d gone to one meeting over the years, and after a 20-minute “talk” by the Fairy Lice Godmothers, and “a word about Box Top Sales,” I’d understood enough to know that convening in that cafeteria was the exact opposite activity one should pursue while trying to close the gap between stay-at-home and working-Mom.
It hadn’t helped the organization’s cause that I’d sat next to my Australian friend, recently transplanted to our middle class, New York, suburban school district, who couldn’t stop elbowing me. When we broke to refresh our coffee, she explained: growing up in the Outback, she’d watched American movies and always thought PTA’s were a Hollywood invention. “I can’t believe this really exists,” she said giddily. Then she left early to make the train for her high powered job in the city.
Needless to say, my application was accepted that fall.
My rising fourth grader snatched the notice from my hand and danced around the room as if we’d just received word of a free pony. “Now you get to come on every field trip with us!”
I danced with her, feeling that wonderful sense of purpose that had kept me going all these years, as I dedicated myself to raising a happy soul. Also I wondered, was it really every field trip?
That September, I attended the meeting for Class Moms, or Lead Room Parents as was the politically correct term, though notably not one man was in attendance. As my friends and acquaintances reintroduced themselves as Co-Presidents, Co-Vice Presidents, Secretaries and Treasurers, I stifled my giggles over the ceremoniousness of it all, but also found myself impressed. The lot of them were organized, poised and eloquent as they each said a few words – thanking us for joining, talking about the great year ahead, and reminding us to hand in our fundraising cash facing up and in proper denominations.
“We are not your bank tellers,” I believe was the way one member put it. “Now if you’ll turn to your folders,” another added. I opened mine. An array of letters and announcements burst forth – so many that their colors extended into obscure tones of honey-mustard and periwinkle. It was here, as I perused my “duties” for the upcoming year, that giggles gave way to anxiety.
Seems there was a bit more to it than fun field trips. For starters, I was to “co-chair” two events “at minimum.” One of my two elections—upcoming in two weeks – was “The Back to School Night Bake Sale,” which I was not only to organize and run, but fill out reports for, as a way to pass the baton for the next year’s volunteers.
I was also to collect money for the Parent Directory that this organization published every year, organize and man class parties, spearhead, collect for and purchase teacher gifts, solicit donations from local businesses to create an annual raffle basket for the spring fundraiser, and arrange chaperones for various events.
I scanned the room and saw trepidation spread over fellow newbies’ faces, as they too, felt the hourglass sands of 10 and two slipping from their grasp. The expressions of the more seasoned members I couldn’t read as well.
Satisfaction? A sense of duty?
I knew most of these women from the supermarket and school parking lot – mostly stay-at-home mothers, many former career holders – but did I really know them?
I mean, who were these selfless souls who not only found time to do this, but did it again and again, year after year? Women who went above and beyond making their own kids happy, as they dedicated their time to others’ kids?
Even in my virgin naiveté, I knew that was the whole point of the PTA, right? One child all children, or something to that end. Eventually I’d realize that ours was not actually a PTA but a PTO – the first being a national association, the second a local organization – so arguably, these women weren’t contributing to the cause at large. Still, within our small district, there were kids who needed extra – field trip money, tuition for extracurricular activities, access to Chrome Books and resources – and these noble women, most of whom had kids who didn’t need the extra, were seeing to that, which in my mind, was as pure a form of altruism, if ever there was one.
The least I could do was run a little bake sale – even if I’d no idea where to begin. I scanned the report from last year’s event, looking for the words of wisdom former chairpeople had left behind. Scribbled under the heading "How to ensure the success of the event" was one, lone piece of advice:
“Advertise in the School District’s Email.”
“Psst.” I whispered to my “co-chair” and friend, Jen. “What else?”
Jen waved her hand, unperturbed by the lack of instruction. She was an ex marketing guru, turned stay-at-home mom of two kids. Also, she’d volunteered at last year’s bake sale, and assured me there seemed little to it. In addition to emails, we would send home flyers. Then the day of, people would show up and donate baked goods. All we had to do was ring them up and collect the money. Easy Peasy.
Perhaps I should have remembered my own garbage filing system when it came to receiving flyers, but honestly I was too swamped to think about it: meeting with my daughter’s teacher to strategize about parties and trips, emailing chaperones, sifting through my daughter’s backpack for crinkled envelopes and ten dollar bills for this and that event. What choice did I have but to start a spreadsheet, and a real filing drawer with correspondence and notices?
The phrase “at minimum” also came into play. Once you are in the system, so to speak, you are called upon to volunteer for other events. Could I bring water to Sports Night? Man the Book Sale? My daughter joined the school play, and somehow I became the regular Wednesday afternoon parent chaperone.
Before I knew it, the day of the Bake Sale arrived, and I entered the lobby to find our plastic, leaf-themed tablecloths virtually empty. Jen seemed mildly concerned, but hopeful that by 5:00 p.m. we’d receive more.
By 5:00 p.m., I was frantically dumping supermarket cupcakes and brownies into a cart. Our daughters rushed to unwrap the goods and took post behind the cash boxes, for the real excitement: cashiering.
We raised $300. Minus the $70 I spent on goods, minus the drawer, we netted $200. Was that good? Bad? I had no idea. It sure didn’t seem like a killing, but I supposed $200 more than the PTO had in their account before. And everyone had fun: Jen and I had chit-chatted with friends, our girls lived out their dream come true of making change and bagging goods, and we’d sold out. All was well.
Until I started getting the texts from veteran PTOs.
“Better than nothing.”
“At least you tried.”
I met Jen for coffee to fill out our report, and we both agreed we wouldn’t let a few rotten apple comments – or people – spoil the fun we’d had, and the greater good of the cause, when no sooner did this lovely zinger appear on my phone: “Lol, clearly, fundraising is not your calling.”
“Let it roll off,” Jen suggested.
Easy for her to say when, with the help of good therapist, she’d “made her peace” with not working.
Her phone pinged – the text we’d been waiting for from the “president” to give us last year’s numbers as a comparison. “They grossed $572,” she said.
“Wow.” I sat back. “I guess we really were pathetic.”
We looked at the blank report awaiting our suggestions. We had none. The only thing we could do was try harder next time.
“You’re going to be class mom again?” My daughter watched me sign the dotted line, her eyes widening. “I thought … you didn’t like it?
Like had become irrelevant. Like was something for the first timers. “Why, you don’t want me to?” I tousled her hair.
She pulled back to observe me. “No … I do …”
The second meeting, I once again spotted the newbies’ worry – this time from a perch of experience. It was then that the look on the veterans’ faces, I’d such a hard time registering last year, became clearer. It wasn’t satisfaction, or a sense of duty.
It was competition – not unlike what went on in the work office, I supposed; only here, in the alternate universe of the PTO, it was more a work simulator, where we got to test our wings and make mistakes before taking flight into the real world.
“You ready to do this?” I asked Jen.
“Hell, freaking yeah.”
We printed the flyers and sent home the emails. But that was child’s play. We need something cleverer … Something out of the box ... Something that had worked on me …
Some good old fashioned guilt.
We needed to text and call every single person we were quasi connected to in the district, individually. It’s easy to delete a mass email, or toss flyers in the trash, but to ignore a text, or, worse, a human voice on the other end of the phone? You gotta feel like a jerk not to at least bring in a box of Twinkies.
By 4:00 p.m., on the scheduled day, our tables overflowed with goods. We spent two hours with our daughters designing cute tags, arranging doilies, and setting up baskets and platters to merchandise multi-tiered displays of cupcakes, pound cakes, white chocolate lollipops, crumb cakes, brownies, cookies, ganache, mini pies, gluten-free granola bars, peanut-free blondies. We artfully arranged scores of bottled water and other snacks – what was the obsession with baked goods anyway? It made me recall the moment in "Good Will Hunting" when Skylar asks Will out for coffee and he tells her they might as well go for caramels, it’s just as random.
“You’re making us hungry,” the teachers said approving on their way out. “It looks beautiful.”
Beautiful and ready to be a money machine.
The doors opened and the clock ticked into position. We had three 25-minute shots to capture sales: when the third, fourth, and fifth grade parents passed through the lobby to and from back-to-school-night classrooms. But we really only had five minute segments each way of parents coming and going, as the rest of the time they would be in teachers’ presentations.
A few third grade parents trickled into the lobby. We made a sale or two, and then, like that, the halls emptied. Where was everyone else?
“Maybe they’ll come after they meet with the teachers?” Jen hoped.
After the teachers, three more people entered the lobby. The rest of the parents were nowhere to be seen. Worse, the fourth grade parents started to enter – and I could count the number of them on one hand.
“Start advertising,” I called to our girls as I headed down the hall to see if we missing something.
“Advertising?” My daughter looked confused.
I wheeled around, arms flailing. “Bake sale, bake sale! Help the PTO support your children!”
“C’mon, I think she’s losing it,” my daughter whispered to her friend. A hand landed on my shoulder.
“You’re in the wrong spot,” a fifth grade mother said. “The back door is open. People are going in and out through there ...”
“But … it’s supposed to be in the lobby,” I stammered. “It’s always in the lobby. ‘Since the dawn of time,’ someone said at the meeting. ‘The Bake Sale Is Held In The Lobby.”
She rubbed my arm, as if consoling me for the loss of a pet. “I know.” She said. “It usually is. It’s not your fault. Maybe–”
I broke away, moving in slow motion toward the lobby, a dream in which I couldn’t run fast enough. “Theyyy’rree …” my voice warped. “… commming …” I grabbed Jen’s arm, pulled her from discounting chocolate fudge cookies. “… through the baaack.”
“Whhhaaaat?” Her mouth held open in slow motion. Therapy had been particularly rough the other day, she’d confided. She needed this as much as me today.
“Wee. Have. To. Locckkk the doorrrrrr.” We slow-dove past piles of baked goods, spotted the principal chatting with a parent “Principallll… The back doorrrr. No one knowsss we’re heeeerrre …” Her mouth moved, but I could not believe what she was saying: No, I’m sorry, we can’t do that ... security issue.
Adrenaline broke the slow motion spell. “Make signs!" I sprinted back to our girls. ”Oh, forget it!” I snagged a sharpie and drew a semblance of a cupcake onto a blank piece of paper, thrust the sign to my kid, a platter of cookies to her friend. “Get down there!”
“But we want to–”
“Don’t you see!” I clapped my hands down on my daughter’s shoulders. “There will be NO CASHIERING if you don’t get people here to BUY BAKED GOODS!”
“GO, GO, GO!” Jen called, then turned to me, holding up her watch. “You’re not going to believe it but we have to go up to our class now.”
Our fifth grade teachers put on a great presentation, and if I’d been paying attention, I would have taken something away from their power point slideshow, as they talked about preparing the kids for middle school. Yada, yada, yada: I was too busy scanning the room for potential buyers.
“And now, a word from our lead parents …” Finally. I stood, holding my information on “coupon books for sale” – which would have to wait.
“If I may, there are two 10-year-olds downstairs who are at this very second hoping and praying that when this lets out they will get a mad rush for brownies …” A giggle rose up through the crowd. But I wasn’t here to entertain. “… So to that end,” I continued, “We’re offering a flash sale of five items for $10 …”
The fifth grade parents came through, buying up goods – we got another rush of 3rd grade parents. Turns out, they had all filed into an auditorium orientation meeting adjacent to the lobby. Once I found out about that, and that we only had 10 minutes left before closing, I morphed into a carnival worker. “One dollar, everything one dollar!” I called through my cupped hand mouthpiece. “Step right up …”
We netted $830. I counted up the cash, sealed the envelope, and dropped it off to the treasurer the next day.
Checking my reflection in the rear view mirror, I felt a surge of pride. Dare I say … confidence? Not only had I done it, I’d done it well. Maybe I wasn’t such a worthless blob of stay-at-home after all?
Chew on that burnt lentil loaf.
I didn’t attend the PTO Board Meeting that took place a week later, but Jen called to fill me in. Overjoyed at how well we’d done, The Board announced that we’d made bake sale history.
“Unfortunately, not everyone was happy,” Jen continued, explaining that our praise was interrupted by a six-year veteran PTO member who stood and said, “Can I just take a moment to thank So-and-So …?
So-and-So was not me or Jen, but someone else who’d apparently run an event a week before the bake sale.
“…So-and-So was very organized,” the veteran had continued. “She put her money together perfectly. All of her bills were in numerical order, and facing the right way. Unlike some other people.”
“Aka us,” Jen clarified.
I don’t know how the other board members reacted – I didn’t ask and didn’t care. I was too busy chuckling at my selfless souls notion. I was also understanding, that while it was okay to test one’s wings inside this simulator, the trick was to get out before it was too late. To fly the nest before I, too, fell prey to the inevitable trap of judging the up and comers. Clearly, fundraising is not your thing.
I pulled out the report, ready to scribble all my secrets onto the page, then stopped. What if my successor needed a chance to redeem herself, too?
“Advertise in the School’s District Email,” I wrote, passing the baton.