Confessions of a Classroom Volunteer

Why one mom loves volunteering at her child's school—except on Friday afternoons

By Jennifer McGuire
From the print edition, April 2012

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Photography by Edward Pond

I have sipped weak tea while cleaning out the wood chips in the guinea pig cage. I’ve logged entire months in cloakrooms, lining up boots and rescuing soggy mittens from under benches. I have nervously helped kindergarteners in the washroom on skating day, lifting them onto the toilet with their skates still on and their snow pants scrunched around their knees, looking away discreetly and thinking “Oh boy, I shouldn’t be in here.” This is just some of what I do as a classroom volunteer.

See, I love kids. I love their frankness, their unflappability. I love that they think my jokes, silly faces, impressions and even potty humour are funny. There exists no level to which I won’t stoop for a good belly laugh. Plus, I love the colour in schools. Not the drab hallways but the classrooms brightened with painted pictures hung on clothespins and the multi-hued bins full of dinosaurs, books and crayons.

Being a classroom mom gives me a hopeful sort of energy, that feeling like everything that happens at the school is good. (Plus, I’ve had the chance to spy on my kids, now 18, 16, 12 and 11.) I still manage to think, after 13 years of volunteering, that most people working and helping in schools have good intentions. They want to help shape children, guide them and teach them phonics as well as morals, math and kindness. You’re rolling your eyes, I bet. Naïve, you’re thinking. But that’s not to say I haven’t learned a few hard truths along the way.

For instance, there are going to be kids you like—the ones you look forward to seeing every day. I remember a little girl in my oldest son’s Junior Kindergarten class. She always wore long braids and some wildly coloured skirt overtop of her jeans. Her name was never the same—one day she’d say it was Janet; another, Beatrice. And she always had a backstory for the name, like Beatrice was an elf princess, hiding in our world to escape the evil prince she was being forced to marry. There are also going to be kids who get under your skin. And you’ll tell yourself they probably have a difficult home life and are acting out to get attention. But it doesn’t stop you from entertaining the idea of getting your tubes tied a second time around for good measure.

Then there are the teachers. I have a weird hero-worship thing going on with some of them. I really want to be their friend. I mean, we drink tea together. We make small talk. That’s what friends do, right? Um, no. it was a bit of a downer when I realized, wait, they’re not my friends. I am their helper only, and I know this because they get to go into the teacher’s lounge whenever they want and I am only allowed in to wash spoons and stuff.

I’ve learned over the years that I am not able to run my own show like I thought I could. In a moment of defiance/weakness I decided to start up my own glee club at the school—with no help. I lasted three interminable months. I found myself doing that clapping thing to get their attention, which never worked. Instead of learning choreographed steps, the club deteriorated into the kids screaming and running around the gym for an hour while I slowly became unhinged.

I learned never, ever to volunteer on Friday afternoons. You will be torn to shreds. Ditto for first thing Monday morning. I have learned that Grade 6 seems to be the last year your kids will let you near their classroom. After that it’s all just writing cheques for field trips and attending parent-teacher interviews.

Probably best of all, I learned a lot about my kids. I got to watch them use their manners without me saying a word, help their friends zip zippers and lace laces. I got to watch them turn into the men they will someday be. All from my perch in a tiny chair that refuses to contain my behind at the back of a classroom.

Do you volunteer at your child’s school? What do you enjoy most about it?

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