Confessions of a Reluctant Volunteer

As published in The Rye Record on April 12, 2012
Me and another chump, dressed as Clifford at the Scholastic Book Fair. I’m the cranky looking one.

I did the Book Fair for five years. That phrase rolls off my tongue like a lullaby, as I have said it thousands of times in response to requests to volunteer. Like a dueling cowboy, I pull it out of my holster at the first sign of, “Hey, we’re looking for someone to chair the…” Kapow! I did the Book Fair for five years. That, and “you know, I have a baby at home…” seem to stun the requester long enough for me to make a quick escape. Eventually the truth catches up to you: my “baby” is now 55 pounds and can do simple algebra in his head. I know I have to do my share, as it’s part of the social contract when living in a community with great schools and limited funding. So I carefully calculate my volunteering budget and then decide where I’ll spend it.

Initially, I looked for jobs where I could lend my diverse skill set to the community. But you’d be surprised how few volunteer opportunities involve ironing, shooting the breeze, or eating peanut butter until you need to nap. I’ve come to realize that my skill set doesn’t necessarily need to meet the demands of a volunteer job anyway. Volunteering is the perfect time to bust out, try something, and fail. They can complain, but they cannot fire you. I’ve checked.

So last week was the Fifth Grade Play – The drama! The laughs! The nerves! The monologues! The tears! And I’m just talking about the Costume Committee. About six months ago I was asked to chair this committee, and I responded as any sane person in my shoes would have, “No thank you.” You see I cannot sew, have no visual creativity, and am not particularly organized. But the woman on the other end of the phone, who probably logs 40 volunteer hours per week, offered a strong pleease and a promise of a great committee to help. What was I going to do?

I’d done the costume job three years earlier when my older son was in the fifth grade. They say that insanity is making the same mistake over and over again, but they also say that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. I knew that this was a job that I would be terrible at, but I also knew that it perfectly fit my carefully contrived three criteria for volunteering: finite duration, pleasing venue, and exposure to the under 12 set.

Finite Duration: It is critical that the job has a clear beginning and ending date. Ideally, the duration is 10 to 12 on a Saturday, but even if it’s six weeks you still know when it’s going to be over. The Book Fair is the perfect example of this, as you set up a full retail store and break it down again over a period of 10 limit testing days. On day 10, the Scholastic truck pulls up, collects the leftovers and you can head for I did the Book Fair for five years retirement. Jobs like Class Mom and PTO President have a lingering quality about them and do not meet this criterion.

Pleasing Venue: Where are you going to spend those precious volunteer hours? Personally, I choose my jobs so that I won’t ever, ever have to go to a meeting. I don’t like agendas, fluorescent lights or the sound of lots of people talking over each other. Meetings trigger a sort of post-traumatic stress response in me, possibly due to a brief career in banking. I find myself getting restless, then silly. I desperately want to pass a note to the person next to me, maybe with a funny drawing of whoever is currently talking. It’s not that the meetings are not productive, it’s that I’m not productive in the meetings. I’m too busy doodling, rolling my eyes, and looking at the clock like a middle schooler in Friday afternoon Social Studies class.

But I love any job that can be accomplished in the sewing circle format. I am a worker bee at heart and like to complete a task. I like sitting around with a group of women that I don’t really know to iron on patches or address envelopes. There’s a certain type of conversation that flows in this setting, unpressured and honest, not unlike the conversation you have with your kids while driving. Silences aren’t awkward because no one came there to talk, and thoughts aren’t edited because no one’s really looking at one another for a response. I have gotten to know the nicest people this way, and have known them differently than if we had met at a party and exchanged the obligatory facts about our lives. It’s the difference between “I have 2 kids and a dog” and “What I’ve really always wanted to do is…” It is my secret mission to bring the sewing circle back into vogue.

Exposure to the Under 12 Set: If I’m going to be working for the school, I want a backstage pass. I want to be in the school, I want to get to know the teachers, and I want to know the kids in my son’s class before they start helicoptering beer into my basement. (I’m told this is coming). The Costume Committee meets this criterion in spades, as I now know 75 fifth graders by face, name and shirt size. Mission accomplished.

So, with the help of four limitlessly resourceful women, the costume job got done. There were pirates and lost boys and animals and Indians. And they all had to be altered in some way and organized in bags and put back after each performance. This is not brain surgery, I admit, but it was at once challenging and hilarious. I’ll probably do it again when my next son rolls through fifth grade. But until then, I’m going to stay choosey. And I can, because remember: I did the Book Fair for five years.