I’ll admit it. I was a little jealous of the mothers (and fathers too) who work in the classrooms at our elementary school. My children attend a public elementary school that flourishes, in part, because of extensive volunteer support. There is a parent in both of my 1st grade daughters’ classrooms every day. The parents help with small group reading, computer lab, library, gardening, art, science, and much more.
Because of the demands of my work, I’ve been unable to make the commitment to be a classroom volunteer. When my older daughter, now a high school sophomore, went through this elementary school I used to joke that I was the “cookie mom”. I couldn’t be present at school during the day, but I baked cookies for every class party and school fundraising event.
That approach doesn’t seem to be working so well for me this time around, I guess because a few things are different.
I now work for a company headquartered on the east coast, which means that morning hours are critical for conference call and email accessibility. And my husband has had schedule adjustments too – his business day starts mid-morning but runs rather late at night. This means that he takes the girls to school every morning (it was my privilege with our older daughter) while I pick them up from their after school program in the evening.
My startling realization when dropping my daughters off at a birthday party recently was that I know almost none of the children in their classes. Nor the parents. Nor which parents go with which children.
Additionally, the younger girls don’t have the benefit of a team. My husband used to drive on every field trip, but he’s no longer able to get away from work to do so.
And unlike their older sister, the 1st graders have let us know – have let me know – that they want me to be present at school.
“How come you never come to my class?”
“Why can’t you come on the field trip?”
For the past several weeks I’ve been working very long hours. On conference calls early in the morning, back on the computer as soon as I tuck the girls into bed, and checking email on my phone constantly in between. I had two week-long business trips in less than a month.
So when one of our teachers put out a desperate plea for additional parent drivers for a field trip scheduled the week after my product launch, I quickly responded that I would chaperone. The two teachers agreed to let both of my girls ride with me. One of my girls was so over-the-top excited I was accompanying her that she declared the night before she was certain she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep – so eager was she for the next day!
On Friday morning I packed our lunches, grabbed my camera, and took the girls up to school to meet the rest of the class and pick up my two additional passengers.
It would be an understatement to say my little group of four kicked my ass!
First of all, chaperoning a field trip doesn’t just mean that you are responsible for transporting your assigned children to the destination. It means that you are the designated pack mule. Fortunately, I had the foresight to bring a backpack instead of my purse, because I found myself carrying seven lunches (one of my little charges had three lunches; she ate them all!) with five full water bottles and collecting discarded sweatshirts and jackets along the way. My backpack was so full, and so heavy, that if I turned too quickly I knocked the parent beside me off the path.
Chaperoning a field trip means that you are charged with keeping your small group of 6- and 7-year olds together and on task. This may sound like a piece of cake when you enter the Japanese Tea Garden at 10am and the teacher says “we will all meet back here at 12:15pm”. But let me state for the record that we are raising a generation of confident, self-directed future world leaders. My size and age did not automatically make me the chief of our little group. No, far from it. I, with the 40 pound pack on my back, trailed behind my children as they darted along the narrow paths, narrowly dodging elderly park visitors. I grew hoarse yelling “stay together!” and “get back on the path!” and “let’s not run under any more sprinklers!”
After my field trip experience I’m convinced that elementary teachers are evil. Don’t kid yourself that they plan field trips to give our children expansive education experiences outside of the classroom. This is their way of showing parents how truly difficult it is to spend six hours a day with 25 independent, precocious little beings – our little angels.
And mothers (and fathers) who volunteer in my daughters’ classrooms – I salute you! No longer do I feel envious as I sit on my conference calls, listening to someone drone on about bits and bytes, picturing you reading quietly to a small collection of attentive children. Now I know that at the end of your scheduled volunteer shift you stagger out of the classroom drained, sticky, clothes askew, ears ringing…much as I did at the end of my field trip experience. Thank you for being there because I can’t. Thank you for coming back week after week.