Expecting the worst

Like you, I had my suspicions about the rah-rah moms, the ones who made a hobby (or a career) out of their kids' school years. And then I became one of them.

Published October 22, 1997 1:36PM (EDT)

Like you, I had my suspicions about the rah-rah moms, the ones who made
a hobby (or a career) out of their kids' school years, who were always
available to chaperone field trips and cut construction paper for art
projects and make jigglers and dirt cake for classroom parties (who didn't
even have to ask what jigglers and dirt cake were), who called the
teacher by her first name and went gung-ho over every fund-raising drive. I
looked askance at these moms (and the occasional dad), thinking that no
normal, well-adjusted person could possibly care that much. My old
high-school contempt for the popular kids, the joiners, was deeply
ingrained -- school spirit was for nerds. So I dismissed these
so-happy-to-help moms as control freaks who couldn't let their kids out of
their sight, or goody-goodies who were reliving their student council glory

And then I became one of them.

I'd like to say it happened insidiously, imperceptibly, creepily --
first the denim shirt, then the leggings, then the insatiable desire to
handle school paste. But it didn't. I made the decision to become a
classroom volunteer with my eyes wide open and my knees shaking. We live in
a nice suburb with a perfectly fine neighborhood elementary school. My
husband and I went to public schools ourselves and, good liberals that we
are, we always felt a little guilty about the homogenous, high-end private
preschool we'd sent our son to. We were disturbed by the barely veiled
racism and classism of so many parents we'd met there, who spoke of public
school as something their kids needed to be shielded from. We would send
our son to public school and we would make it work. It was the right thing
to do.

When, after a suitable period of procrastination, I finally put my name
down to help out for a couple of hours a week in my son's kindergarten
class, I thought, OK, no big deal: I'll pass out the snacks, I'll feed the
goldfish, I'll get to see how smart my kid is, then I'll go to work and
forget about it. I didn't imagine -- couldn't -- how much help a
kindergarten teacher with a class of 27 kids and no such luxuries as a
regular paid art teacher or library aide would need.

On my first day of school, I sat at a little table in the back of the
room while the teacher, a woman so young and enthusiastic it almost made me
cry, went through the lengthy and complicated ritual of Circle Time. While
she was doing that, I was to go down the class roster and take four kids at
a time to my table and have them cut out pictures of pumpkins, paste the
pictures in sequence from vine to jack-o'-lantern, color the pictures and
try to write their names on their papers. After my first group of four, I
was in a panic.

In my fantasies of being Snack Mom or Fish Mom, I left out one little
possibility -- that I would actually have to interact with strange
children. Oh, I'm great with my own kid, but I still get tongue-tied around
other people's kids. I don't want to overstep my boundaries; I don't want
to be responsible. But that's exactly what this volunteering gig
required. Some kids couldn't get the pumpkin sequence right; I was
instructed to give them a few hints. But how many hints were too many? Some
kids couldn't spell their names. Should I show them how to make the
letters? Some kids wanted to color their pumpkins purple or red. I was
supposed to gently prod them into thinking about the color of real
pumpkins. But, often, I didn't have the words -- I frantically tried to
call up bits of my high school Spanish. Naranja? Verde? Por favor? This
wasn't trivial stuff I was doing with these kids; these were projects that
the teacher would have done herself, but it would have meant she'd have to
abandon other projects. What right did I have to be playing school?

When the teacher thanked me profusely -- too profusely -- as I walked
out the door in a daze, I knew that there was no graceful or decent way I
could get out of this. She truly needed the help. And if not me and the
other volunteers -- always the same half-dozen parents, I soon found out --
then who? So I went back, because I was needed and because my son was proud
to have me there and because I wanted this school to be great, like
my elementary school had been in a far less affluent town.

I went back and got to know my son's classmates: Cody, who loved horses
and who would rub his head against my shoulder, horselike, by way of
greeting; Angela, who was an aspiring writer and a bit of a know-it-all and
who reminded me of myself at age 5; Zelda, who had beautiful sparkling
black eyes; Alan, who was a chatterbox; meticulous Ann, who was always the
last to finish her work and it was always perfect; Felipe, who would shyly
tell me about his big brother, whom he adored. There were some things that
troubled me: Julio's pants were always too small and kept unsnapping, but
it didn't appear that he was going to get any new ones. And George's cold
was hanging on for such a long time. I developed a great respect for
teachers, not just for the workload they carry, but for the emotional load.

I drove kids on field trips to the pumpkin patch and the post office. I
walked kids to the school library and helped them choose books. I mixed
finger paint and filled glue pots. I traced penguin shapes onto black
construction paper and measured heads for pilgrim hats and Native American
feather bonnets. (My husband's most tedious assignment: helping 27 kids
sort handfuls of nuts for a graphing project -- walnut, filbert, almond,
walnut, filbert, almond.) And this is what I got in return: a little time
each week where I was too busy to stress out over work; a flowerpot
decorated with each kid's name scrawled in gold pen; and the persistent
goodwill of two dozen of my son's peers. A year later, I hear, "Hi Mark's
mom!" on the playground and at the mall and on the soccer field. I'm
tempted to tell them, don't remember me, remember your teachers -- I'm just
a helper mom. But I don't. Because, at long last, I have school spirit. And
I like being popular.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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