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.