the “why” behind the “do”

I spent a total of 7, maybe 8 hours today, making a big map of our school’s fall festival–to be held in two days. I had drafts, I had mock-ups, I ran out of printer ink, I used construction paper… I broke licensing rules with clip art… And all the while, I kept asking myself, “why am I doing this?”

Well, when I was new to the school, I had desperately wanted a map of this festival. I wanted to know who teachers were, where classrooms were… I wanted to understand what my children experienced. I felt lost. I hated being lost. I don’t want any parent to feel like that. I want them to feel like they know where they are. Like they belong.

We do the things we want to do. Always.

I know that. But sometimes, I’m blown away when the thing we want is actually needed by others. It’s what they all “prescience.” Or “service.” Or “compassion.”

That map? It’s going to help a few kids who haven’t honed their reading skills, and a few parents who haven’t learned English fluently yet upon immigrating to this country. If it helps one child, or one parent? One? Just one? I’m thrilled.

Look at these craft pumpkins, a required donation by each class at our children’s school.

Spider, Caught in a Web of Reading
Mike Wazowski, of Monsters University

These? They were decorated by me, today, after spending the day making a map. Why? Why did I do this? Because other parents work full time. Other parents have other needs. Because other parents have other priorities. Because other parents have less. Than me.

This is simple, unimportant stuff. Maps. Craft pumpkins. School festivals. But however you function during these little events, whatever you give during these tiny times of need? They say something. Maybe not a lot. Maybe not loudly. But something is said. Such as:

I have. A lot. In terms of time, money, inclination… ability. I can. So, I do. And when I did? My kids were thrilled.

That is my “why.” And knowing “why?” It makes it so easy to “do.”

If you’re out there, finding it hard to “do?” Think about that “why.” Hard. After that? Everything gets easier.

does a corporate wife = a PTA mom?

In a word, “probably.”

When we first learned that we’d likely relocate to Europe, my husband asked his employer’s relocation liaison whether the company had any support for spouses seeking employment. He described my past employment history, my current endeavors; it was really quite nice to hear him talk me up a bit.

But the liaison said, “Relocating requires a tremendous amount of time on the part of the trailing spouse, especially in that first year. Most spouses dedicate much of their time to volunteering at the children’s school.”

There you have it.

The school our children would attend is one of the best in the region; children do well there. That is to say, one would not volunteer at the school to help the children. One would do it to help herself.

Now, there are schools in the United States that will definitely benefit from the volunteer hours of parents. Schools can be desperately underfunded and understaffed. Volunteering helps the school, and is worthy. When you help the school, you reduce a certain amount of stress on the school, and the school has more energy and resources to devote to its students. Wikipedia is so handy sometimes:

Volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity, intended to promote good or improve human quality of life. It is considered as serving the society through one’s own interest, personal skills or learning, which in return produces a feeling of self-worth and respect, instead of money. Volunteering is also famous for skill development, to socialize and to have fun. It is also intended to make contacts for possible employment or for a variety of other reasons.

But then there’s this. I agree with Bruce Feiler’s position that it is, in fact, “okay to skip that bake sale.” And he is absolutely correct that in some schools, “Volunteering has become a status symbol of sorts.”

At our children’s current school, a sweet, well-regarded, high-achieving, public elementary school, I’m on the PTA. I help the school as much as I can. It’s fun. I get to meet people, think about ways to raise funds to help the school, keep myself busy, and have an impact. I volunteer at the school because I like to feel smart and effective. (I also, admittedly, like to see how our local tax dollars are spent, and if I can help maximize or offset them with our fundraising efforts, yay!) Most of the parents seem to operate under the same premise.

But there’s something that can happen to a volunteer. A volunteer can start to feel entitled, and worse, like a martyr. I’ve heard, if a parent feels slighted: “After all I’ve done for this school…” Or, if a parent feels tired with all their volunteer hours, “Nobody helps at this school.”

It’s unbecoming. Or, it’s just a sign that those volunteers want to find paid work.


Tomorrow I have a PTA executive committee meeting with the kids’ school principal. He’s a nice man, works hard, and “gets it.” He likes our kids. He likes me. I don’t want to give him grief. I’ve been asked to attend the meeting because I’m chairing the PTA’s fundraising efforts, but also, and I quote, I “keep things light.”

Easy to do. It’s the PTA, not Middle East peace talks.

When we move abroad, I’ve been told that many corporate wives/trailing spouses end up getting involved in their children’s school (read: PTA). Great. I’ll be ready.

In reviewing the international school the children will likely attend in the future, I must admit (finally) to a little bit of anxiety with regard to this move. Our children are currently being educated in a good public school, but not a great public (or private) school. The school year starts August 20; our son will begin kindergarten and our daughter will start second grade. There’s a good chance they’ll start attending the international school in the spring.

Will they be able to keep up in their new classes? Are we pushing it, to assume that they can receive instruction in a second language (native to the country) while acclimating to their new environment? Are they going to be okay?

Our kids are lovely. They are bright, enthusiastic, independent, right on track academically, they please their teachers. I can only assume that these attributes will serve them well. Their current teachers seem to think so, so my assumption is basically a firm belief.

But I have not been a parent who has… pushed? encouraged? gently nudged? our children to do more than is required when it comes to academics. My daughter has been able to read for well over a year now, and she reads herself (and her brother) bedtime stories, and daytime stories too. They like math games. We have them play “school” games on the iPad. They don’t watch a lot of television–maybe two hours a day if it’s rainy outside. (Not a lot of rainy days here.) I’ve purchased some age-appropriate workbooks, which they work on, sometimes, if they feel like it. All of this is more than my parents ever did for me.

Actually, I don’t recall my parents doing much to encourage or enable explicitly my academic achievement. My mom recently said of me at age 7, “You played by yourself a lot.” I sort of breezed through public school. The first time I freaked out about grades was in grad school. (The episode was beyond embarrassing, worthy of another post entirely, but only if I’m feeling especially masochistic.)

Now, in the children’s current school, there seems to be–and I could be terribly wrong–but there seems to be a very strong desire among some PTA moms to get their children into the “gifted” program. If I think about it, last year, nearly every PTA board member had a child in the gifted program. Last year in fact, the PTA president told me to get our daughter tested to see if she would qualify.

I said, “But her teacher has not indicated that she demonstrates any ‘gifted’ tendencies.”

She responded, “You have to be an advocate, the teachers don’t pay attention.”

Now, I understand the sentiment, to a point. Our schools are underfunded, and if you can get more out of the school, go for it.

But I looked at the school yearbook. 63 children, from Kindergarten through the fifth grade, are in gifted studies at the children’s school. The student population? 685. Nine percent of the school’s population is gifted. Wow. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, only six percent of the student population between Kindergarten and 12th grade is gifted.

Maybe we shouldn’t be filtering our tap water.