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An Open Letter to the PTA at My Daughters’ School

posted Wednesday September 15th, 2010

It’s official. I have now seen it all.

Do you belong to the PTA at your kid’s school? Good for you. I mean it. I have more than one friend who’s even ascended to the presidency. I have great admiration for these people.

But I know myself. I don’t work well with others. Remember the opening of the movie Broadcast News, where they show the characters and titles with their future professions under them? Well, my character’s title definitely reads, “Future Alternative Newsweekly Employee,” which is code for “does not play well with others.”

So I’ve never been to a PTA meeting. Haven’t so much as set foot in the door. That’s not to say I haven’t tried to help out at my kids’ school. I have. (Though like just about everyone, I will freely admit that I could try harder!) My mantra is keep it in the classroom — do work for the teacher (no matter how menial, though I am afraid of the laminating machine) and make donations wherever I can.

In other words, avoid drama.

When Annabelle was in kindergarten, I broke down and agreed to bring food to the teacher appreciation luncheon at the end of the year. I stressed over my cut-up strawberries, pineapple and pound cake (which was meant to surround the chocolate fountain and no, I’m not making that up, that was to be the centerpiece of the table). I bought A LOT of fruit and cake — at least I thought I did — but as soon as I walked in the room, another mom with very long fingernails and way too much hoochey-mama going on for a Friday afternoon at school (not that I’m judgemental or anything) pointed a nail at my platters and said, “That’s all you brought?”

I was crushed. I renewed my classroom-only vow. I made friends with PTA moms who gave me tasks to do on my own. Things were cool.

When Sophie was in kindergarten, I made the mistake of responding to an email from a PTA mom (not one of my pals) who was soliciting ideas for how to spend funds raised at the school’s annual spring auction. I hesitated, then sent a long note explaining that I would love to see money go toward funding an aide for the kindergarten playground at lunch, since at the time (and probably still) there was just one “duty” (I hate that word!) assigned to watch more than 90 kids. As I explained, this is something lots of other school PTAs do.

When the list came out, it included ideas such as “Italian lessons” and “tours of the Arizona State University campus,” but no playground aide. My idea wasn’t even good enough to be considered as an idea.

OK, I get it. Vow renewed — again.

Another year went by, and then the notes came home earlier this month announcing that the PTA was looking for volunteers to coordinate art auction projects with each class. Hmmm, I thought. This is in the classroom. I’d be working with the teacher and the kids. It would be a nice way to donate to the school. OK, I’ll do it. I told both girls’ teachers that if they needed volunteers, I was available.

In the end, our beloved Ms. X (kindergarten teacher to both Annabelle and Sophie) was without a parent volunteer, so I signed up to a project in her class, too.

The email went out to all volunteers from the art auction coordinator, soliciting our ideas. Or so I thought.

Annabelle’s project — a hooked rug — was already underway with another parent, I was told; I emailed that parent and offered to assist in any way I could. “I don’t know anything about making hooked rugs,” she emailed back. “Do you?”

Turns out, the coordinator had assigned her the project. That seemed odd to me, but I didn’t think much of it til it came time to tell the auction coordinator what I had decided to do.

I spent a lot of time making a decision. These projects are tricky and I’m not super-artsy, and I know how hard it is to work with a group of two dozen kids even when you are not trying to create something someone will want to buy for a lot of money. So I solicited ideas on Facebook, spent hours researching craft web sites, even emailed a couple women who run art blogs (including my favorite, The Long Thread – and that woman even responded!) and finally, after several evenings, came up with an idea, one that’s near and dear to my heart. I felt really good about it.

Last night, I emailed the coordinator:

i think i’ve landed on an idea for mrs. z’s class. i love the idea of having the kids draw self portraits. this would be involve them doing line drawings of themselves. i’ll take the drawings, make iron on transfers and embroider each. it sounds harder than it is — i only have very basic embroidery skills but i have been doing this with my kids’ drawings and i think it turns out nicely. after i’m done with all the squares i will find a parent who can help me make a quilt from the squares. (i’m not capable of making a quilt, but i know i can find someone who is.)

The coordinator responded:

Good morning! Do you have an example of “iron on transfers”? We had a bad experience with this last year. And we have an embroidery project already from Mrs. [teacher's name] class. I have a folder of other ideas should you want to see it? Let me know…. Best regards, [Auction Coordinator]

I was a little taken aback, I admit. I certainly don’t mind input, but this seemed a little dismissive and, well, sort of mean. But, wanting to be a team player, I responded:

I have done about a dozen of these projects already, which is why I feel most comfortable doing this. The kids would focus on drawing self portraits; I would do the embroidery. Can you give me details on the other embroidery project so that I can be sure there is not a lot of overlap?

And then I left for work. When I signed onto my email an hour later, I had two messages waiting for me from the auction coordinator. (Note: These are just as she wrote them.)

Email #1

Good morning. It’s [another parent's name] using special paper for the background. The embroidering is over the top of the art paper. She has an example picture and a commercial sewing machine.

The husband/buyer of the “quilt with paper overlays”, last year was NOT HAPPY with the product he purchased with the heavy proding of the student. The opening bid of $50 was about $40 too much. Although we want collaboration of the students in some portion of the project…an artist/adult can make it worth buying; as well as bringing the child to observe Art not craft. I’m not being crabby but it was not pleasant. So, find a different way to use the line drawings. Best regards, [Auction Coordinator]

And Email #2, titled “Apology”

Good morning. My daughter let me know we should be Very Appreciative that you, well Known for Your Artistic Ability is helping us. So please don’t take insult to what I have said. I’m so passionate to upgrade this Art sense in our school and we have alot of Arizona Craft baggage people. Thank you for your efforts and don’t let me be a crabby old downer! Regards, [auction coordinator]

Upgrading from craft to art? At a school district that has no arts program whatsover, in a classroom filled with 7-year-olds, with a budget of $50? What sort of art does this woman expect the kids to produce? And who cares if the project isn’t perfect — really, are we expecting to purchase Picassos or trying to contribute to the school?

I am well aware that I can be difficult to work with, but I don’t see what I did in this case to deserve that big dose of nasty.

My first reaction — after okay, I’m offiicially done with this — was, “Wow, your elementary school-aged daughter had to tell you to apologize?”

Turns out, this woman is a grandparent at the school, which I learned 15 minutes later when another PTA mom called to say she’d heard about the fracas and begged me a. to not pull out of the project (too late, I’d already sent that email) and b. to not tell anyone what had happened.

Too late again. I’d already written the headline on this blog post. Frankly, I consider this a public service announcement. 

More than once, since we’ve been at this school — which is not in a hoity toity neighborhood, not really, certainly no one around here deserves to have a ‘tude — other parents have mentioned to me that they have felt left out, that they’ve tried to volunteer and been shut down or poo poo-ed. This just happened a week ago, at a birthday party.

“Don’t be silly,” I’ve told these parents, trying to stand up for the women in the PTA I know are good, kind souls, figuring they’ll prevail. “It’s just your imagination.”

Maybe not.

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Tags: Filed under: arts and crafts, public school by Amysilverman

33 Responses to “An Open Letter to the PTA at My Daughters’ School”

  1. ah, hell.

    clearly there needs to be some kind of alterna-PTA. I went to Abby’s for the first time earlier this week, and while it wasn’t as bad as yours, it didn’t leave me excited.


    I still think you should do the project. Screw the auction part, at least let the kids have some fun.

  2. You’re good, Amy. Good parenting has been around lots longer than PTA. I know a teacher who always called it “PT F(reak)ing A”.

    Consider sticking with what you know about not working well with others. To heck with the social nonsense.

  3. I love your idea and think there are plenty of quilters/stitchers who could help you make a great quilt from the kids self-portraits. I’ve made a few photo transfer quilts and always get lots of great advice/help from the needle work community.

    For every great idea there is a handful of nay-sayers and poo-pooers to try and diminish it.

    As Einstein once said: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

    Carry on :-)

  4. thank you, everyone! i will do the project with the kids, as i think we would all enjoy it, particularly without the pressure of the auction hanging overhead….

  5. LOVE it!

  6. I’ve been on the PTA board twice (once I made them change the night just because I was taking MWW!) and the chair of the school Site Council. Both suck. Both are filled with people who only like to bitch and moan (I don’t do that, but I do heckle frequently). I go for the free pizza and to hang with some of my friends. And to make it better I play Harper Valley PTA before I go.

  7. amy,
    for the record – maile’s two fondest craft memories involve you & your skills, in the classroom.
    she still has the dreidel.

  8. oh amy…so frustrating! I thought your idea of embroidery self portraits was a good one! I’d be much more likely to buy that than something from a commercial embroidery machine.

    As for going more “art less craft”. I had to laugh! Our school (which I won’t name publicly to protect my kids) has decided to go more craft and less art this year! Our last 2 art events we had high end art and well, people just aren’t willing to pay for it! we’re hoping that we can make more with lots of small- lower priced craft items!

    We’d love for you to donate a hand embroidered piece :)

  9. oh, and if you need help stitching, i hope you call :)

  10. That’s pretty bogus. I am all for exposing kids to art and the art process, but I also think that the kids should do a lot of the work. Given that, the art is not going to be “museum quality.” But, no one asked me to help out this year. I am sure I was part of the “crappy quilt” group. I also made a suggestion of a way that more parents could buy art (and not just the one who shelled out big bucks), but was ignored. I’ll just keep putting in tons of hours to keep the fall festival going and hope that I do my part for the greater good.

  11. I went to one PTA meeting. After the vice president and president came near to blows, I never returned. And helping in the classroom was frustrating, too. Seemed all the teacher wanted was someone to babysit the behavior problems. Your idea sounds wonderful, though.

  12. I am a “T” and very annoyed on your behalf. My students and I would feel honored and blessed to have you embroider a precious reminder of their childhood. Project made with love – priceless.

  13. Speechless. Exept the sound of my gagging.

    Yuck. Sorry you had to deal with that!!

  14. *except*

  15. Hi,
    Isn’t it amazing that some moms and dads are still playing the high school keep away game? I would have thought that we would be too old to play, but I too have been victim to this game at our school. The killer, though, is that I was on the staff and a parent of a child in an immersion program. Those parents were VERY exclusive and didn’t let moms in that weren’t ‘just like them’. Although, as a staff member, I was begged to leave my position and ‘follow’ the program to another school, I knew that I would continue to be on the ‘outside’. I was very glad to see the backs of many of those parents.
    If I wasn’t so mature, I’d have to use some not so nice names to speak of them. Good thing I’m above that. :)

  16. Italian lessons?? for a bunch of elementary aged kids? I nearly spit out my coffee when I read that. and hooked rugs? seriously? how can you compare the genius, personal, special idea of a quilt to a hooked rug? lame.

  17. Un.Freaking.Believeable.

    Really, there are no words.

    I can’t wait to see the finished product and hear about the memories made, creating it.

  18. heather, i would be honored! annabelle, sophie and i will get to work on a piece for your event. :)

  19. Jennifer — you are awesome and the quilt you made with Sophie’s class was awesome and the best part was that each kid brought home a beautiful square she/he had made, in addition to what was made for the quilt. It was done in exactly the spirit I think should be intended!

  20. And P.S. this post from Susan Tully is freaking hilarious, if you’re looking for more PTA-style tales.

  21. Hey Amy! Love your blog. Two years ago I retired from volunteering on school committees and your post reminds me why. I’m wondering if you experience any retaliation when your write stuff like this? One year I hit reply all to an auction committee email and suggested, based on everyone’s mutual experience serving on the auction committee, that we present the chair with special a trophy I found online (google “horses ass trophy”). No one said anything. A few months later the principal asked David to serve on the school advisory board. He said OK, but then the board president and auction chair unearthed my trophy email and decided my “unchristian” behavior disqualified David from serving. Tee hee.

  22. Geez, that’s behavior worthy of North Scottsdale, where I live. Our school tries to be really good about including all us renters in their activities. Of course, we’re often reminded of our inferior status as Occupants of Other (Presumably More Worthy) People’s Foreclosed Homes.

    Personally, I really like the frosty treatment I get from the Scottsdale Trophy Moms Plastic Surgery Club. It could be the Botox, of course, that gives them all that same frozen glare. I find it endlessly amusing.

    Sending sympathy hugs your way.

  23. [...] the record, I don’t think you’ll be finding the project for your school’s next art auction in “Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People.” [...]

  24. I swear we live parallel lives. I DO work well with others but I’m unable to find common ground with the PTO gang. They are a different breed.

  25. Can you say “controlling”? I do believe that often the heads of those school committees are frustrated monarchs!

  26. Oy.

    When I was in high-school (20 years ago now), my English teacher asked Andrea Useem to read her essay aloud. Andrea began reading: “My mom is a PTA mom.”

    The English-teacher began laughing. He was a gruff old man, the kind of guy who pretended to be really stern but was really loving. He retired at the end of that year, and would die just two years later. I don’t think we’d ever seen him laugh like that. He shook. He fell off his stool.

    Finally he stopped laughing, and Andrea kept reading, about her mother’s pathetically futile attempts to stop teenage drinking, about her mother’s overly-sincere naive misguided giant waste of time. Our English teacher kept laughing.

    Andrea’s a journalist now. She’s still a great writer. And I still remember the lesson I learned that day in English class: Never be a PTA mom.

  27. Oh Amy, This was real???? I am in such a small sheltered world at Metro Arts and have not had to deal with such crazy nonsense. I am so sorry. I like your perseverance and drive.
    You rock!

  28. I’m so relieved I’m not alone. I wanted badly when we first came here to be part of our PTO (4 years ago we moved East out of AZ and our school in AZ had no desire to deal with parents so the PTO was never formed). So we move here I attend some meetings and was met with some really crappy attitudes. I thought it was me… I’m very thin skinned. I admire a few of the folks there and I stuck around for a few more meetings. Took a few snickers from people when I commented on some of the issues brought up… okay chin up I’m new to this. Let it slide. They said they had “babysitting” and I was thrilled because I wanted my husband to come to the meetings too and I thought I could attend even if he was working late. Then we were informed by the “babysitter” that a “baby” had to be attending school… so we improvised and paid a couple 4th graders and that led to some confrontation about rules. Now being able to volunteer is harder than walking a tightrope and I’m just so finished with all that.

  29. PTA funds cannot be used to pay teacher salaries. It is against the by laws. Your school COULDNT use the funds for an aide.

  30. Actually, that kind of thing goes on all the time — it WOULDN’T be a teacher’s salary.

  31. I am a mother of 2 special needs children and a second time around mother (meaning: My children are adopted, my biological baby is 28 years old) I am a PTO member (vice-One) This will be my last year, Our President is controlling she has to be in charge of everything, The problem we have is the Vice-2, Vice-3, Treasurer and secretary are never available to help with activities ( due to work and family ) some times they don’t even come to meetings, Book Fairs, Movie Night etc… so the president and myself are doing all the running getting supplies setting up tearing down and running all aspects of the activity, the problem is we also have responsibilities outside of PTO, It is causing riff in my household because I’m always busy doing PTO stuff, I decided as of 4:10 PM on Fridays I had nothing to do with PTO till 9:00AM Monday morning, PTO blows up my phone and email all weekend with jobs or questions I’ve told them weekends are mine not PTO and they get upset with me and state I’m not taking the position seriously, I’d quit now except that would put more on the president to do as none of the other members would come forward to help. It is sad when wanting to help our children’s school becomes a nightmare, and not worth it.

  32. I happened upon your post and even though I am late to the game …(6 years!) Boy did it speak to me! I have dealt with this kind of BS for years and years. Once you get on their bad side (though I still don’t know what the hell I did to be placed in the dump zone) it’s literally impossible to get out. and quite frankly if it means jumping on the “mean mom” band wagon I’d rather stay on their crap list.

  33. HI Amy,

    I’m BRAND new here…actually read your current blog post first (Would Someone Please Sit with My Kid at Lunch? – and I can’t wait for a follow-up), but boy…what is with these PTO’s? So stinking sad. Here, even if I wanted to go to a PTO meeting – I’d have to leave work early because they are at 4′oclock! Seriously?? Whatever. Anyways what a crock of BS! Sorry to hear you’ve experienced such crazy drama…with ADULTS! Pffftt!

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