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A Rah-Rah Mom

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I'd like to say it happened insidiously, imperceptibly, creepily—first the denim shirt, then the leggings, then the insatiable desire to handle school paste. But it didn't. I made the decision to become a classroom volunteer with my eyes wide open and my knees shaking. We live in a nice suburb with a perfectly fine neighborhood elementary school. My husband and I went to public schools ourselves, and, good liberals that we are, we always felt a little guilty about the homogenous, high-end private preschool we first sent our son to. We were disturbed by the barely veiled racism and classism of so many parents we'd met there, who spoke of public school as something their kids needed to be shielded from. We would send our son to public school, and we would make it work. It was the right thing to do.

When, after a suitable period of procrastination, I finally put my name down to help out for a couple of hours a week in my son's kindergarten class, I thought, OK, no big deal: I'll pass out the snacks, I'll feed the goldfish, I'll get to see how smart my kid is, then I'll go to work and forget about it. I didn't imagine—couldn't—how much help a kindergarten teacher with a class of 27 kids and no such luxuries as a regular paid art teacher or library aide would need.

On my first day of school, I sat at a little table in the back of the room while the teacher, a woman so young and enthusiastic it almost made me cry, went through the lengthy and complicated ritual of circle time. While she was doing that, I was to go down the class roster and take four kids at a time to my table and have them cut out pictures of pumpkins, paste the pictures in sequence from vine to jack-o'-lantern, color the pictures, and try to write their names on their papers. After my first group of four, I was in a panic.

In my fantasies of being Snack Mom or Fish Mom, I left out one little possibility—that I would actually have to interact with strange children. Oh, I'm great with my own kid, but I still get tongue-tied around other people's kids. I don't want to overstep my boundaries; I don't want to be responsible. But that's exactly what this volunteering gig required. Some kids couldn't get the pumpkin sequence right; I was instructed to give them a few hints. But how many hints were too many? Some kids couldn't spell their names. Should I show them how to make the letters? Some kids wanted to color their pumpkins purple or red. I was supposed to gently prod them into thinking about the color of real pumpkins. But, often, I didn't have the words—I frantically tried to call up bits of my high school Spanish. Naranja? Verde? Por favor? This wasn't trivial stuff I was doing with these kids; these were projects that the teacher would have done herself, but it would have meant she'd have to abandon other projects. What right did I have to be playing school?

When the teacher thanked me profusely—too profusely—as I walked out the door in a daze, I knew that there was no graceful or decent way I could get out of this. She truly needed the help. And if not me and the other volunteers—always the same half-dozen parents, I soon found out—then who? So I went back because I was needed and because my son was proud to have me there and because I wanted this school to be great, like my elementary school had been in a far less affluent town.

I went back and got to know my son's classmates: Cody, who loved horses and who would rub his head against my shoulder, horselike, by way of greeting; Angela, who was an aspiring writer and a bit of a know-it-all and who reminded me of myself at age 5; Zelda, who had beautiful sparkling black eyes; Alan, who was a chatterbox; meticulous Ann, who was always the last to finish her work, and it was always perfect; Felipe, who would shyly tell me about his big brother, whom he adored. There were some things that troubled me: Julio's pants were always too small and kept unsnapping, but it didn't appear that he was going to get any new ones. And George's cold was hanging on for such a long time. I developed a great respect for teachers, not just for the workload they carry, but for the emotional load.

I drove kids on field trips to the pumpkin patch and the post office. I walked kids to the school library and helped them choose books. I mixed finger paint and filled glue pots. I traced penguin shapes onto black construction paper and measured heads for pilgrim hats and American Indian feather bonnets. (My husband's most tedious assignment: helping 27 kids sort handfuls of nuts for a graphing project—walnut, filbert, almond, walnut, filbert, almond.) And this is what I got in return: a little time each week where I was too busy to stress out over work; a flowerpot decorated with each kid's name scrawled in gold pen; and the persistent goodwill of two dozen of my son's peers.

A year later, I hear, "Hi Mark's mom!" on the playground and at the mall and on the soccer field. I'm tempted to tell them, don't remember me, remember your teachers—I'm just a helper mom. But I don't. Because, at long last, I have school spirit. And I like being popular.

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