This year I'm missing my kids' school spring fair. It's the Fete Champetre at Maret School on Saturday, May 22 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and it's free and open to the public, with a moonbounce, climbing wall, and other games and activities, a rummage sale, vendor tables, food pavilions and more (end of commercial). I'm skipping out this year to attend a family wedding in Austin, Texas, one of the few times I've dodged this annual semi-mandatory parental job assignment. The parents of my daughter's class are in charge of selling the scrip used to pay for games and food. I feel guilty enough about my dereliction of duty to make it the subject of this column. But not guilty enough to send regrets to my cousin's family and stick around to man the ticket-booth. How did it get to the point where I would even consider such a thing?
Let me get back to the beginning, circa 1994, when we were looking at schools for our two children, one of whom would be starting kindergarten the following fall. We looked at every school, public and private, in the Cleveland Park/Woodley Park/Tenleytown area. We went about it very systematically: We drew up a chart with the name of each school on the vertical axis, and a list of school criteria as headers on the horizontal axis. That created a grid with boxes in which we could assign a rating to each school in each category. For example, we had "Quality of Faculty," "Class Size," and "Curriculum" as three of the most important areas on which we judged each school. Then we had some practical considerations: "Closeness to Home" -- we assigned more points to the school if our kids would be able to walk there when they were old enough -- and "Cafeteria," with lots more points to a school that had one than to a school that didn't (as we could not see ourselves packing bag lunches for the next 14 years). One of our quirkier rating categories was something I'm calling "Parental Indentured Servitude" (or PIS, for the purpose of making it fit into the grid heading box). This was a category that was scored in negative numbers. The more we thought the school required parents to work on the school's behalf -- running school functions, assisting on field trips, staffing the auction, putting on the spring fair, soliciting for the annual fund, and a multitude of other "volunteer" jobs -- the greater the negative number we assigned to that school. We figured the rating for each school based on firsthand reports from parents already indentured to the school.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that parents shouldn't be expected to volunteer at their children's schools. Absolutely, they should. We would not have been interested in any school that didn't have active, involved parents. What made a school go into deep negative territory was a high pressure atmosphere, and a heavy load of guilt for parents who didn't do as they're told every time they were assigned a task. We were looking for a school where voluntary actually meant voluntary, and a "No, sorry I can't" would be accepted graciously with a friendly response: "Then we hope to see you next time." We were looking to avoid the taskmasters who think they can whip insufficiently dedicated parents into shape. These are almost always other parents -- virtually never the administrators. Every school has at least a handful of over-zealous PIS-meisters. The key for us was to pick a school where they were not the defining spirit of the parent body.
I won't reveal the rankings that we assigned in the PIS category to the schools we considered for our children. It's all so long ago that doubtless things have changed. All I will say is that we thought a few schools rated a -8 or -9 (the max was -10), while the school we ultimately chose, Maret, seemed to us about average in this regard. It ranked very high for closeness to our house, for having a cafeteria, and, as a small school, was top ranked for small class size and individual attention to students. We were generally impressed with the teachers and courses offered at all the schools we saw, so there was little point variation among them in those categories.
Sixteen years later, one child having graduated and the other with just one more year, we can sit back and reflect on our original assessment. Maret was and is a great school. Our kids loved it and got a great education. But what about the PIS level? Well, now that I've put in my hours, no, my years -- baking cookies for bake sales, cooking casseroles for class potlucks, running two class email lists (well, I kinda had to volunteer for that one, now didn't I?), taking dictation from kindergartners for their "autobiography" projects, being a room parent for the first grade, being a fortune-teller at the spring fair for 5 years in a row, shepherding kids on field trips, drumming up speakers for assemblies, delivering dinners to the cast and crew of the musical, donating items to the after-prom party and the rummage sales, and stepping into perhaps a dozen other jobs over the years that I've forgotten to add to this list ... now where was I? Oh yes, after all that, well, the reality is, everything I did I was happy to do, and would do again, if I could go back in time. Yes, I was asked to do many things, but I never said no. Until this year's Fete, when I won't be there.
So now that I'm missing ONE THING, why after all these years of cheerful compliance to my school's call for a high level of PIS do I suddenly feel guilty? It's certainly not due to any external pressure from my fellow parents. I supposed I've so fully internalized the mindset of a PIS-syndrome parent that there's no other outcome possible. So, all during that wedding, as the bride and groom are exchanging their vows, as we're dancing and toasting, somewhere in the back of my head I'll be thinking, "I should be selling scrip today." And "I wonder if they found someone to staff the booth for that last shift?" But don't pity me. I have only one more year to go.
Still, something tells me that even when it's over, it's never over. In my own mind, I'm at PIS level -10, and may take a long time for me to come back up to a normal level.
Posted on the Cleveland Park Listserv on April 30, 2010.