An embarrassment of riches

My parents didn’t volunteer in my school when I was a child. My friends’ parents didn’t either. Sure, a few moms helped out in the library or sewed costumes for the annual school musical, but they were considered exemplary, not the norm.

Eleanor is starting kindergarten next week, and at her school, it is assumed that each parent will volunteer. Most parents do, many of them once a week. I hear from my friends who already have children there that the volunteer positions fill up almost immediately. Sign up early or risk getting the job that nobody wants. Maybe that’s lunchroom duty on the day after Halloween.

We got a tour of Eleanor’s school last week, and the principal requested that we give the children a few weeks to adjust before we start dropping by to eat lunch with them. This never happened when I was a child. That’s not to say that one way is right and the other wrong, just that school has changed a lot since I was young. I do think that this assumption that every parent wants to — and can — be at school at any time is a problem.

I read an essay a few years ago by a mom who lived in a wealthy suburb and didn’t volunteer at her children’s school. Instead, she drove across town to a school that educated kids from low-income families and volunteered there. After reading it, I thought: That’s what I want to do.

This raises a question: What is the purpose of the volunteering? Am I doing this to show Eleanor that I’m involved in her education, or am I hoping to make some lasting difference in the life of a child?

Most of the children at Eleanor’s school come from two-parent families, and many have a stay-at-home parent. They are read to every day. They live in safe neighborhoods. They have nutritious food to eat. While there are students who struggle, as at every school, I am under no illusion that my volunteering would save these children from a life on the streets. Much of the volunteer work goes to planning events and fundraisers and ensuring that the only job the teachers have is teaching the students.

I will mention that I learned while reading “The Smartest Kids in the World” that parental volunteering does not correlate to children doing better academically. Children do perform better in school when they have parents who show an interest in their education and set high standards. Obviously a school is better off having parents more involved than less. But it blows up that notion that Eleanor needs to see me at school to do well.

Still, I feel the pressure to conform. And I’ve had a handful of parents tell me that I need to volunteer if I want to keep up with the teachers, the administrators, the politics. Not sure whether I do.

And what of the children at those schools in another part of town? My volunteering there could make the difference between a kid ending up on the streets or in college. At my former job, we used to adopt an elementary school at Christmas and buy gifts from lists that the children made. One of the boys I bought for had asked for a pack of crayons and construction paper. I went to buy the crayons. It was $1.19 for a pack of 24. I started to cry in the middle of Target.

We read to Eleanor every day, work on math, do science experiments, visit museums. I’m pretty sure that Eleanor knows we value education. Maybe it’s more important that I show her we value kindness.

3 thoughts on “An embarrassment of riches

  1. I love this, Sarah. Your calling is obviously to help others. If that’s where you are being pulled I say that’s where you’re meant to be. I can’t wait to hear all about it.

  2. This is perfect. Coming from the land of teaching, I didn’t have many volunteers by choice. I liked the parents and it was a wealthy school with resources galore. However, I saw the volunteering as an odd way for parents to try and create favor within the classroom and hated that the parents who DID have to work to afford their tiny homes in the expensive Los Angeles neighborhood could not volunteer if they wanted. I felt the need to even the playing field and halt a lot of that. Was it necessary or were the parents just trying to make sure their child always had the first place in line and nice notes on their report cards?

    Personally, it’s an odd place. I love the idea of volunteering because I am a teacher and love being in classrooms and being around children. But like you said, do I need to be in MY child’s very well-off classroom to volunteer when the kids have it all? It won’t make my children achieve greater, and in fact it’s sometimes a distraction for them. Like you said, however, taking an interest in their education (as even parents who both work can do) equals greater success.

    Off to read that article you linked. Also, I was pulling out my Nook to download Quiet last week (which needed a new battery and I’m still without) per your recommendation and then my husband went to a business leadership conference at the end of the week and came home to tell me about the speakers. Among them was the author of that very book. Funny coincidence.

  3. I’m so struck by the ideas and uncomfortable nudges you give here. We’re about to send our own kindergartner off – to a lovely, peaceful, safe school – and I never considered this question of where my involvement would be best served. Thank you for a call to conscience.

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