Thursday, June 12, 2008


Be nice now.

I was a driver for the OMSI field trip.

And I hated it. (Good things that came from it: A new invention. A "Loud-o-meter" which can be mounted from the ceilings of mini-vans in dvd position--yeah, just make softwear that an existing dvd can run. It could be instant feedback for 4 kids in the back of a van, an objective visual measure of just how loud too loud is. It's a benefit to the kids as well as the adults, protecting them from being unfairly disciplined if their noise level is in fact below a certain threshold but the adult's has shifted so even a whisper is too loud. Although I will admit that fairness to the kids is not what motivates me here. In fact, as I took refuge in my fantasy of such a device while the waves of sound crashed over me like a rogue sneaker from the ocean, my thoughts imagined darker things that went far beyond visual feedback. How about electrical shocks? Mmmmm, yelps, then silence......) (I've had other inventive ideas while driving children around in vans. I still don't understand why it isn't standard equipment to have a soundproof window that can descend at the touch of a button between the driver's row and the region behind. Why not tender neck massagers that automatically appear when the window goes down. Oh, but that's extreme. What's really necessary are little fur-covered cuffs that would anchor little arms and legs to seats so they can't beat each other up when they realize their screeches are impotent. Those could appear concurrent with the window's descent.)

Oh yeah. Let's see, high points of OMSI trip. There had to be a theme. Teacher Billy passed out a scavenger hunt list of things they were to accomplish while there; things like draw or write about a chemistry experiment they did, or a physics experiment...the name of a dinosaur from Oregon, discoveries they had made. (I hate scavenger hunts.) My group (The Cinnamon Pterodactyls") fragmented nearly immediately: two second grade girls and the Scott/Felix duo. The girls had nothing in common with the boys and never wanted to be doing the same thing at the same time. The boys, as is customary, started off well, but degenerated toward the end into competitions that were fiercely important to them, ludicrous to me. There were several incarnations of this scenario: in the 'earthquake house' where they can push buttons to experience a 5.8 scale earthquake, or a 6.8. All to the tune of Carole King's song "I Feel the Earth Move". Felix wants to push 5.8. Scott wants to push 6.8. I want them to leave and move on to the next thing--I'd already abandoned the scavenger hunt. Both of them have dug in so whoever is the last one to touch the button has 'won'. So neither of them want to move away from the button because that means the other one will get to touch it last. I want to knock their heads together and when I finally have to put my hands on them physically to remove them from the house it's with a conscious effort to not close my hand beyond neutral pressure.

But this is all beside the point. The main point is the questions that arose from my arse-whuppin' yesterday from my cuz. What was the seat of my angst about putting my needs ahead of others? That was kind of the crux of the dilemma both about attending the moving up ceremony and driving (or not) for the field trip.

Is it because I believe I'm not entitled to meet my own needs and because I fear the opinions of others that I even had to think about it? Where is my opinion about my own honorability entwined or entangled with that of others (or, to complicate it even further, with my perception of others' opinions?)?

In the case of the ceremony, though I joked and kind of implied that I went to Felix's dad for 'permission' to not attend, it was actually more nuanced than that. Having not been part of the school last year what wasn't clear to me was the weight the culture of this classroom gives to such rituals. Is this ceremony about giving respect to change and honoring the accomplishment of these young students and thus is something I should seriously consider suspending my personal comfort to add my presence to? Is this something that overall is of benefit to the classroom culture and to Scott? Martin's response told me that indeed, this is that sort of event--not that he was telling me I should attend, but his decision to postpone his other plans told me there was something here to respect. It wasn't the answer I wanted, but it seemed expedient to bow to it, setting aside all consideration of "adequate" parenting.

Driving for the field trip was a more difficult matter because it's about finding that balance between contributing adequately to a community and sponging off the group.

A few weeks ago our NPR station had its quarterly fundraiser. As part of their attempt to awaken the conscience, they used "The Pizza Analogy": A group goes out for pizza regularly. Occasionally someone doesn't have money and the group absorbs that person's expenses. Ideally in a situation of goodwill in that community this situation of short-term inequity works out in the long run--eventually he/she too will carry someone at another time who happens to be short of a little change. But what happens if someone always takes, never contributes? (We wouldn't want to be that person, would we?)

In the classroom I don't think a field trip has ever had to be canceled because there weren't enough drivers. At least this hasn't happened since Scott & I joined the school community in January. I've noticed that the sign-up lists often remain blank until the very day of the trip, and then someone always comes forward. I think of the age-old story of the grasshopper and the ants, the workers and the players. The grasshopper might be vindicated for his playing when the winter comes because 'something comes through' just as he 'knew it would'. But generally the 'something has come through' because some ant had stepped up and done his job. I suppose the story of Mary and Martha and the dinner where Jesus was the guest of honor is a version of the grasshopper/ant story.

I'm still trying to negotiate where that line is where I can rely on the collective work of the community to carry me for a while, and where I need to be a contributer. I think some people deal with that tension by always contributing and never taking...some seem to feel no shame at all in always receiving. It seems there's an act of trust required from everybody to make it all work harmoniously--when giving to give wholeheartedly, when receiving to receive wholeheartedly, and to trust that all are doing their best and it will indeed be evened out in the end.

The 'shame' part was my estimation of myself in trying to get out of driving without having to be asked and without having to face in myself the question of whether it was honorable to say no this time. That involved the skulking behavior in the classroom, avoiding Billy's eye, keeping distance between him and me in an effort to avoid the question.

Still, how much of that is based on my own judgment of what's honorable ("I should be giving Billy a clear, proactive answer") and what I judge his judgment of me is. Part of this is based on a fear that he can see that I am not being my best self in trying to avoid committing myself.

In the end, is it really possible to separate one's self-estimation from that of the judgment of others? Because as I try to dissect this, there seems to be no level where I can separate feeling shame about trying to not deal directly with this request is connected with a sense of how the Other judges it. No matter how deep I go, there does seem to be a reciprocal relationship in matters of honor between Self and Other that I'm not sure can be separated entirely.

I guess I'm going to have to think about it some more.


Returned briefly to update:

Had the stakes been higher I might have leaned more toward outright refusal. I wasn't going to get a full day at home alone anyway. Wednesday ordinarily is a volunteer day with me at the various schools from around 11 all the way until 3 or else driving between. I was going to have to fetch Connor from his friend's house somewhere in there too, so it's not like I was passing on a full-monty-alone day. Had it been a full-monty-alone day I'd be giving up, I may have been more willing to endure whatever it took to preserve it.


Douglas W said...

So you made a decision and you went.... and you didn't like it.

What if you had not gone? It sounds as though you would have stayed at home feeling guilty all day.

Either way the result is bad feelings.

So... how do you change this so that when you do go you actually enjoy it.... and when you don't go you don't feel guilty?

Back to my question the other day... how many children and how many parents does this school have? Surely there are enough available parents to draw up a roster so that the load is shared equally and everybody can take time off without feeling guilty. If not then perhaps the school can get a bigger bus and need less drivers... or simply hire a bus and driver for the day. There are many solutions... perhaps the school teachers and the parents need to get together and discuss them.

Ask those what if questions that I asked the other day. What if we had a field trip and no parents volunteered? What if we hired a big bus and driver? What if everybody was sick that day and couldn't come anyway? I don't know how things work in your town but one of the first questions we would ask here would be what if a volunteer parent driver had an accident and the children were injured?

excavator said...

I think the point for me isn't whether I like it or not, but about finding that balance between being a contributor and being a slacker. I think that's the main avenue of exploration. (The bitching about the trip itself was just window-dressing).

Being with and supervising a whole lot of kids just isn't really my idea of a good time, so I'm probably going to always approach it with the reluctance I approach other chores I don't particularly enjoy but must be done.

That said, your idea for a system to balance driving duties (and so eliminate the element of personal suspense as to whether or not it's time to volunteer) (and thus limit my exposure to a job I don't really like) has some possibilities.

This particular school is a charter school, and there's a certain context of realities of what's available. One is that there is no school system transportation. Field trips are entirely teacher/parent driven. Parent contributions are the currency that buys the enrichment of outside experiences. It's a K-12 school, about 300 children in the entire student body. The classrooms have about 20 kids. Sometimes the field trips are taken by individual classrooms, sometimes an entire grade level.

This coming year I will no longer be in the position of newbie--middle-of-the-year transplant. I plan to be proactive and set an inner bar for what's reasonable to contribute, driving and otherwise, and use that as a guideline. Hopefully lower the angst-o-meter.

Douglas W said...

How much or how little to contibute is probably a question that many parents have asked at your school. Perhaps it is worth raising the issue with the school in the context of assisting all parents to know what a reasonable level of volunteering might be.

To get an answer like "We'd like as much of your time as possible" is avoiding the question. Parents have lives outside the school and are entitled not to feel guilty if those things sometimes come first.

When I was teaching at a private school the "extra-curricular" contribution at weekends or evening was made clear up front and everybody knew what was expected - and when it was likely to happen.

They could do the same with parents at the time of enrolling theirchildren. "In return for us teaching your children we would like you to contibute your time to a range of activities to help the school, you can choose from the following list of areas where we need help - Driving, Classroom Assistance, School Cafeteria, Administrative Office Work, Sports Coaching, etc - we believe a contribution of 1 day per month (or whatever) is a reasonable amount. While we certainly will not refuse your offer if you are able to contibute one day per week, we understand that many parents also have outside commitments in addition to the school."

Something like that - Some of our local Welfare Agencies and schools have volunteer systems where they list a range of skills and interests so that the person volunteering can make a contribution in an area where they have some skills and feel comfortable. They also list a range of days per week/per month ontheir volunteer register so that volunteers can nominate what they are able to contribute.

I can send an exampleof a volunteer registration form if you like.

Lori said...

I completely "get" the balancing act one does between the grasshopper and the ant, the Mary and the Martha.

That's because I see myself as a grasshopper raised in a colony of ants, especially with entertaining and with stepping up.

What I have tried to develop though (in varying degrees of success) is a trust in myself that I contribute in other ways, and in ways that don't tear me to shreds.

My kids' school requests (feels like requires, since the tallies are kept on a public bulletin board) 20 hours of volunteer time per kid per year.

Some parents LIKE going on trips -- let 'em. I do better in the music room, serving the occasional hot lunch, working on a parade float. Maybe Zoo Mama doesn't have the music skills I do, but she's blessed with a van with a dividing wall (or bad hearing or the patience of Job).

I really had no right to kick your patooty, since I am not really great on this issue, either.

But we teach what we should learn. Here's what I say to us, then: trust ourrselves, trust in our goodness. Find things to do that we enjoy, so that our efforts are freely given and not extorted through guilt.

XO, to make up for my earlier behavior!

excavator said...

Dear Cuz...

You have absolutely nothing to apologize for, or make up for. On the contrary you've catalyzed some thinking about how intimately linked self-opinion and other-opinion is...

It had never occurred to me before to examine the boundaries between approval-seeking and the desire to look into someone's eyes and see my best self shining back.

At a basic level we do exist in the mirrors of each others' eyes...that's the genesis of a child's sense of Self.

I suppose there's a difference in being afraid someone will think less of us if we don't do something they want and in feeling regret if we let them down. And I suppose if I make a choice that is going to let someone down I want to feel sure of my reasons so that alongside the disappointment I may see reflected back to me, I may also see integrity. Not necessarily approval, but my self-respect. (?)

Isn't there a fairy tale somewhere about needing to be pure of heart in order to emerge unscathed from some trial? And a little unease going in if one's purity-of-heart is sufficient? I wonder if that's some kind of archetypal super-story?