He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.
~Michel de Montaigne
When Brett entered first grade this past year, his mom Katie not only agreed to be Art Master for the second time, she also volunteered to be the Room Mother. She'd teach Brett's class about famous artists, and she'd plan parties, organize treats, and become friends with the other mothers.
"And," she said, "This will give me a solid foothold in the workings of the school."
"Aren't you doing enough already?" I asked.
"Mom – it's okay," Katie said. "Being a Room Mother is the best way to stay on top of things. It'll be fun."
Parent-Teacher Open House was the only September event that needed Room Mothering, so it wasn't until October at the Halloween party that Katie first encountered the Mighty Moms lurking behind the cubby buckets.
After the costume parade, witches, princesses, and Supermen wriggled in their seats anxious to dive into the big cupcakes and apple cider. Wally's mom had brought three dozen oversized dark chocolate chip cupcakes, slathered with thick swirls of creamy chocolate icing sprinkled with orange pumpkin-shaped candies- cupcakes to stir the saliva glands in young and old - cupcakes Wally and his mom had purchased together at Albertson’s store bakery.
Calvin's mom had brought little dented white ones with a clear glaze slopped across the tops and down the sides, puddling onto the tray – not exactly eye-catchers for the six-year-old sweet tooth. But those cupcakes were homemade.
When Calvin's mom saw the store-bought cupcakes, she sneered, "Why did I bother to spend all my time making cupcakes from scratch when I could have just as easily gone to some old store and bought them."
No one answered. It wasn't a question. Wally's mom, embarrassed and humiliated, sidled out of the classroom. Calvin's mom phoned the PTA president. Then, much to Katie's chagrin and the children's disappointment, the chocolate cupcakes were set aside leaving a tray of sloppy white half-balls next to the cider.
Wally's chocolate cupcakes were distributed at the end of the day, creating cupcake chaos as costumed children whooped and ran out the door, shoving the fat treats into their mouths, smearing chocolate over cheeks, knuckles, masks, wands, tiaras, capes, backpacks, lunch bags, and the upholstery of their parents' cars.
"I felt so sorry for little Wally," Katie said, "Stripped of his place of honor. He was so proud of his cupcakes. At least the kids got to eat them later. I can't believe Calvin's mother - or the PTA, for that matter."
"Wasn't there anything you could do to stop her – them?" I asked, knowing if there had been, she would have.
Katie tried to put the kibosh on parental interference during the following parties, but it was a losing battle. The Mighty Moms, backed by the PTA, insinuated themselves into Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Pajama Day, Grandparent Day, No Homework Day, Lost Tooth Day, and the Round-up Auction, for which Katie cellophane-wrapped two big baskets, decorated them with butterflies, and filled them with gift cards, candles, candle holders, and placemats - only to find her baskets dismantled, the gift items stuck into other baskets. She finally found her baskets, stuffed with auction-processing papers, lying on the floor behind the auction cashiers in the check-out area.
Too defeated to complain, Katie decided to get through the rest of the year by using low-maintenance strategies. Don't over-plan, don't over-do, don't over-expect, and don't over-react.
When Teacher Appreciation Week approached in late April, Katie phoned me and asked what my school did to appreciate my work as a teacher – she was looking for ideas.
I told her that there was no falderal. No Hallmark Holiday. In the middle of May, my colleagues and I would receive a thank you card from the school board, a token gift decorated with the district logo, like a key chain or a school calendar or a lapel pin, and a simple mid-week buffet luncheon served in the teachers' lounge, prepared by the PTA - a tossed salad, a platter of sliced meats and cheese fanned out on curly kale, a variety of rolls and breads, pickles, potato chips, condiments, and a tray of lemon squares. The administration unlocked the Coke machine for the day, and we’d eat during our regular lunch periods. Unless the PTA moms told them, the students didn't know their teachers were supposed to be appreciated that week.
After much thought, Katie decided to plan, with Brett’s class, an after-lunch surprise party for Ms. Howard. They'd decorate the room, sing songs, and present the teacher with a lovely gift - something personal, like a spa basket or a couple of tickets to the theater or a dinner out with her husband. Katie wanted to put her own signature on teacher appreciation. Classy, tasteful.
"Does that sound like I'm overdoing it?" Katie asked me. "I'd like to make it a little more special than what you used to get."
"Sounds perfect," I said. "Wish you had been my room mother."
A few days before spring break, Katie received a four-page notice from the PTA president, outlining what the PTA moms had decided the Room Mothers would do to celebrate their teachers.
Katie called me up. "You won't believe this," she said.
"First of all, there's a theme. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The catch phrase is ‘Our Staff Make Learning Sweet.’ And – get this - Teacher Appreciation Week is going to be celebrated All Week Long. ALL WEEK. Every. Friggin. Day. All related to sugar and candy and teacher sweetness."
"My teeth hurt," I said. "Did any of these PTA mothers ask the teachers what they wanted? Five days of teaching children overdosed on sugar isn't instructional paradise."
"No," Katie said. "It’s all secret."
In order to give parents enough lead-time to stuff their kid's backpack with the appropriate item on the appropriate day, the Room Mothers had to send home, with the students, at least a week ahead of time, a packet outlining the activities planned for each day of appreciation week. The packet had to contain five pages – one for each day – each a different color, each describing that day's activities and the accompanying parent and student responsibilities. Packet preparation meant composing, typing, printing, folding, stuffing envelopes, labeling them with students’ names, and distributing them before or after school - without the teacher noticing.
"That's just the preparation," Katie said. "Here's what's going on Each. Day."
Sunday, the day prior to Teacher Appreciation Week, was Door Decorating Day. Room Mothers had to decorate the classroom door with a Willy Wonka design and a 'Sweet' message - using pieces of candy to represent the class, like a giant lollypop for the teacher and Jolly Ranchers for the students.
"Be sure to decorate the door on Sunday so it will greet the teacher first thing Monday morning," Katie read.
"How are you going to get into the building?" I asked. "Do you have a key?"
"It's California, Mom. Classroom doors lead to the outside."
"Maybe California rodents will eat the candy. Little rats running around with Gummy Bears stuck in their teeth."
Katie went on.
Monday was Welcome to Teacher Appreciation Day – the day Ms. Howard would ooh and aah over the door, place her hand on her heart, and say something like, "All This for Meeee?"
Monday was also the first of four days that Katie would hide somewhere and collect money for the gift certificate that would be presented to Ms. Howard at the Friday afternoon culminating party, and the candy bar poems the children were to write to Ms. Howard – 'Be my Almond Joy' or 'I'm all Butterfingers Around You' or 'Your Happiness is My Payday' - with the showcased candy bars attached to the poems, which, once collected, Katie had to bind into a book.
"Mom," Katie said. "What the hell is the Ms. Howard going to do with thirty-one candy bars? This is ridiculous. I'm not doing that part."
I could hear a pen scratching.
"Better watch out, Katie," I sang. "You're gonna get in trouble with Cupcake Bully and her cohorts if you break the rules."
Tuesday was Fresh Flower Day. Each student was to bring a fresh flower to the teacher. Katie had to be on hand that morning to collect the flowers, put them in a vase, and present the arrangement to Ms. Howard.
"Get . . . a . . . vase," Katie said. I could hear her pen again.
Wednesday was Oompa Loompa Day. Students were to come to school dressed as Oompa Loompas - green hair, orange faces, brown shirts, white overalls, and blue soccer socks.
"Okay – Wednesday's a bust," I said. "Can't teach orange faces and green hair."
Thursday was Book Binding Day. Katie had to finish collecting the poems and take them home to collate, leaving blank pages in the back for the forgotten ones. Then, after Bridget's nap, go to Staples for bookbinding and stop off at the mall for a decent gift certificate.
"Just a few hours of my time . . .," Katie said. ". . . every single day – including Sunday – INCLUDING SUNDAY!"
"Katie," I said. "This isn't asking too much, is it? It's a cinch for someone like you – you’re just a mom - with plenty of time on her hands. What do you do all day anyway? Other than raising two kids, housecleaning, laundry, cooking, shopping, working twenty hours a week from home as a customer service rep, taking your son to little league, attending church, chairing two committees, and serving as the first grade Art Master, you don't do so much. What's the big deal?"
"Yeah, right," she said. "Listen to Friday."
Friday was Dress as Your Favorite Candy Day. Peppermint Patties, Smarties, and Baby Ruths - adding yet another distraction to the already disrupted educational environment.
Then, as if gratitude hadn't been stretched far enough into Oompa Loompa Land, there would be a Teacher Appreciation luncheon in the teachers' lounge.
"What'll they serve - a variety pack of Hershey's Chocolate with pralines?" I asked.
"I feel like I agreed to bake a dozen cookies and ended up project manager of a Mrs. Fields factory."
"The teachers are going to hate it," I said. "I guarantee they don't want their classes interrupted by a bunch of Lemonheads and Atomic Fireballs running amok all week."
Katie, being the Good Mother, clenched her teeth and followed the instructions as directed. The week's worth of activities took more than two weeks and cost Katie about fifty dollars – far more than any one parent's contribution to the gift certificate.
At the culminating class party, Katie presented Ms. Howard with the book of poems and the gift certificate. Ms. Howard appeared appreciative and thanked the children for the sweet things they had done for her that week. The children clapped and laughed and disappointedly picked at tiny half-pint cupcakes with sloppy glaze puddling down the sides and asked Wally where his good cupcakes were.
Katie phoned on Friday afternoon. "Hell Week is over."
"So - did Ms. Howard thank you?"
"Sort of," she said. "It's hard to tell with her. She doesn't have much of an affect."
"All that and you can't tell?"
"I didn't do it for me, Mom. I did it for Brett," she said. "But never again."
"Not even if there's a Room Mother Appreciation Week?"
"Not even - but I am thinking of joining the PTA."