I was not raised in a family of joiners. Had middle class families in Wisconsin been required to have a family crest, mine would have said something like: "Sit quietly and read ... over there," with a symbol of universal awkwardness involving toil, isolationism and big glasses.
My parents' annual sojourn into my world was Sauk Trail Elementary's Open House, an evening of red-hot 8-year-old embarrassment as I walked my parents through my day.
A "pocket novel" paperback bulged from my father's back pocket, complementing sandals that left no toe-hair to the imagination. To make up for the fact that he couldn't have picked my second-grade teacher out of a lineup, he accused everyone he met of not being straight with him about my intellectual abilities.
My mother, having gone to a one-room schoolhouse with outdoor plumbing, talked a lot about the bathroom. These are not people you want hanging around when you're trying to slip by unnoticed.
Whether schools have changed, work lives have changed or my parents' "I work during the day" refrain was just them being stubborn -- parents who are habitually absent from school are a luxury my children know nothing about. I am expected in the three classrooms of my three children on a regular basis. I know this because I was the only parent who totally forgot about the Wednesday 2:30 p.m. Pre-Kindergarten Haiku Day Celebration. Well, hell.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself joining the PTA.
Yes, that PTA. That last bastion for women with time on their hands and nonspecific skills. The group responsible for such decisions as the Great Balloon Debate of 2006: Are balloons more welcoming inside or outside the main front doors? A group of women who totally grilled me about whether I could handle the balloon pickup. I said I'd pick up the balloons. I picked up the balloons. How was I to know that, if you jam four dozen balloons in the back of a minivan, 10 blocks later you'll arrive with a tangled mess of string and helium that will take you hours to unsnarl, in a place where you can't even swear?
But as one of my children is borderline special needs, I have come to understand a couple of things about elementary schools, activism, the PTA and joiners.
Yes, I'm more pierced and tattooed than the other PTA moms, and I would be lying if I said that my interest was not originally for my own benefit. I have lost my mind, my temper and my dignity many times over the last two years trying to get the school to accommodate my son. While he was dealing with three major surgeries on his ear, I was dealing with the school's response: "I know he hears me fine."
It was the tiniest glimmer into the world of parents of special needs children, and it's exhausting. Arrive an hour early to meet with the teacher; come back three hours later to talk about test results; arrive early again to go over test results with teacher; stalk hallways ready to pounce on elusive art teacher; pounce. Brave layup-shot basketball gantlet, shout personal medical information to gym teacher. Meet with speech therapist. Agree to meet again. Meet with principal to discuss previous meetings and set date of next meeting. Try not to blow off "Kindergarten Memoirs: A Look Back in Time Afternoon Tea." And, finally, have humiliating moment of self-discovery.
I heart the PTA. I heart parental-school involvement. I heart chaperoning second-grade trips to the Art Institute and sitting the class on the floor in the lotus position to study the Japanese Buddhas. I'm a total embarrassing pain in the neck who knows every teacher's face. I enlisted in their ranks because I thought I could better advocate for my son from inside the system. And -- as it so often turns out in these humiliating moments -- the PTA isn't actually all about me and my son.
The PTA cannot pay for a teacher's salary or other direct educational costs. It cannot make budget determinations or even have final say in how the money it raises is used. So these women (and in our case, also a man) -- who, by the way, don't actually have time, but make time -- navigate between two separate but equal bureaucracies (the school and the district), and between the teachers and the parents (some of whom, as we've seen, can be a bit snarky) and still find time to make concrete, fundamental improvements to our children's education.
Here's what I've learned from Heather (and yes, that is actually our PTA president's name -- you couldn't write it any better): If that dance fundraiser can buy a new gym floor or library books, or fix the plumbing, that's another few dollars back in the budget for education. Also for teachers, for aides and for making sure that every child who steps through our doors has someone with time enough to advocate for them.
P.S. And now that I'm a joiner: Frisbee golf? You're next.
Sarah Lemanczyk, St. Paul, is a writer and independent radio producer. She teaches radio production at the University of Minnesota's Radio K.