Saturday, 14 April 2007

Saying No to the P.T.A.

Whenever I find myself getting nostalgic for Japan -- and I often do -- all I have to do is think of the P.T.A. That usually clears it right up.

In the U.S. and the U.K., you are certainly encouraged to join the P.T.A., but if you don't, you aren't automatically labelled a Bad Parent. In Japan, P.T.A. duty is a given. Not only is your participation a foregone conclusion, during the course of your child's education, you are also expected to serve as a P.T.A. officer at some point. When I first heard this, I told myself that they wouldn't make me do it -- a foreigner with a full-time job. Gamely, I did all of the bare minimum things parents were supposed to do: I helped pull weeds in May, washed classroom curtains, volunteered at the school bazaar in November. Even activities like this bored me to tears, but I told myself 'When in Rome...' and did them. I figured that by being so cooperative, my failure to serve as officer would never be noted. But I was wrong.

First grade and second grade were smooth sailing; other moms generously -- even eagerly -- took on the posts of class P.T.A. officers during those years. But when my eldest was in third grade, suddenly no one wanted to be officer. And the teacher wasn't prepared to take no for an answer.

Every year, my kid brought home a form from the P.T.A. There were three boxes, and you had to tick one. The first was 'I am willing to serve as officer,' the second was 'I am only willing to serve as officer if no one else is prepared to do this,' and the third was 'I am unwilling to serve as officer.' After this one it stated, ominously, 'Give reasons in full.' Every year I ticked that box, and I always wrote 'Busy at work' -- which I hoped would be self explanatory. It wasn't.

On our first group parent-teacher meeting, all of us mothers (fathers were seldom in evidence) sat in a circle in kid-sized seats, already at a huge disadvantage as we tried in vain to make our adult-sized bottoms comfortable. The teacher, holding our completed forms, laughed nervously and told us that she was in a quandary. No one this year had volunteered to serve as an officer, and before the end of the meeting, four of us had to do this. Or else.

'Some of you,’ she said, shattering my peace of mind, ‘have written that you are too busy at work to serve, but that is no excuse. I myself obviously work full-time, but I am currently serving as PTA officer for my daughter’s class.’ At this, several of the women immediately looked down at their hands. I followed their cue and looked at my hands, but the teacher wasn't to be put off. One by one, we were put on the spot and asked why we were not prepared to serve. The excuses were depressingly good ones:

'I'm taking care of my grandmother with Alzheimer's' said an exhausted-looking woman in stretch pants. She already stood out in a group that were better dressed and groomed than I was on any average work day.

'I'm expecting twins,' said a vastly pregnant woman, and I'll bet I wasn't the only one who privately wondered if it wasn't triplets.

'My eldest is taking his university entrance exams and I need to be there for him.' The teacher tried to tell this woman that this wasn't a good enough excuse, but she soon gave up. I've known women whose kids are preparing for Japanese entrance exams to disappear from society for the better part of two years, only resurfacing when their kids have either passed or given up.

When she got to me, I knew that my job was not going to be enough for her, so I tried a desperate measure. 'I'm a foreigner' I blurted out, 'so I might not be able to understand everything.' This was true: my Japanese was reasonably fluent, but I did miss a lot of references that the others got. But the teacher gave a hollow laugh. 'If you can follow this conversation and make your case so eloquently, your Japanese will be good enough.'

At this, all the women in the room looked up hopefully. The teacher had finally landed a live one!

'It's just a weekend or two and the odd week night a month,' said the teacher encouragingly. 'It really isn't such a difficult thing.'

Suddenly I was seized by an inspiration. From time to time, though admittedly very rarely, I had to be on hand over the weekends to answer questions that came up at work. 'I sometimes have to work weekends,' I blurted out rather desperately. ‘Ah,’ said the teacher, like someone who has just found out that her lottery number was one digit away from the winning number. ‘Ah, I see.’ She sighed deeply and went on to the next woman.

I avoided the eyes of the other mothers. I didn't want them to see the triumphant relief in mine.


Brian said...

In Oz they are called the P & C-- Parents and Citizens -- associations , and thus open to all sorts of people from the community .

Never got caught myself for any sort of office , and a good thing too.

My own children do have a bit to do with their children's schools , and I have in fact cooked the odd sausage there on fund raising occasions , though my major contribution has been in monetary support , via buying and eating those snags and other delicacies.


Kim Ayres said...

*Shudder* I avoid those things like the plague.

Eryl Shields said...

What a relief that you didn't have to do it, I was actually getting quite nervous for you!

I was once volunteered - by my husband - to be secretary of the Beavers but was so rubbish at it that someone else had to take over. Saved by my own incompetence.

Brian said...

To be competently incompetent is , I have found , a great way of divesting onself of these burdens .
As long as the use of and acccountablity for money was not involved , I was very good at screwing up those committees et al. to which some sadist had appointed me .


Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- I have baked for the P.T.A., both in Japan and here in Scotland. When I took my baked goods to the P.T.A. here, everyone was very grateful. In Japan, they were grateful too, but this was just a drop in the bucket. They didn't just want my cookies and bread, they wanted a great big chunk of my time. And the awful thing was, most of the time you end up giving them, I learned through experience, is frittered away waiting and coming up with ideas that aren't needed in the first place. Thank God it's different here!

Kim -- Obviously, I avoid that sort of thing too. Here in the U.K., I am one of a majority. In Japan, we who chose to opt out were a distinct minority but for that last year.

Eryl -- Poor you, getting volunteered! I once tried to volunteer my husband to be the Santa Claus at our girls' nursery school; it might have ended in divorce, but the Santa suit turned out to be too small for him.

If I'd been made class officer for the P.T.A., I would definitely have been incompetent, but it would have been okay, as they didn't really need me. There are always one or two strong personalities who are prepared to take over the whole show and don't really need the others, but in Japan, appearances are everything, and numbers must be made up.

Brian -- Fortunately for me, I don't have to pretend incompetence. It comes naturally. When will people learn to take 'I don't do committees' at face value and just leave me be?

Brian said...

I was once pressured into doing the Santa Claus thing at my grandson's pre-school-- and apparetnly did it so well he did not recognise me . Ho ho ho !


Mary Witzl said...

I've always wanted to play Santa Claus, but I don't have the build or the voice for it -- or the personality. My husband is closer to the correct build and deep voice, and he certainly has the ho-ho-ho personality, but he has neatly managed to avoid this so far. But I still haven't given up on him. One year, perhaps in the distant future, if we ever have grandchildren, I'll bet he'll crack.

Kanani said...

I find that there is a core group of women who volunteer for everything. So much so that when you try to help, they view it as their territory, often they say, "Oh, we're fine."

And then they complain that nobody helps. But the truth of the matter is that they have a hard time looking beyond their own social circle.

The PTA's school activities are just one branch of what they do. In the US, the most under-used portion is the public policy arm of the PTA, which is to inform parents of various state educational policies or federal budget concerns. Ideally, these should be conveyed to the parents, and pressure applied to their lawmakers to create sound educational policy.

But most parents in the US are apathetic when it comes government --local, state and federal. So this public policy branch of the PTA never gets beyond the state or national charters.

I find the best way to help the teacher is simply to work directly with him or her. The other thing is that if the PTA wants money, I never EVER buy any of that crap in the fundraisers. I simply write a check, they get 100% of the money and don't have to split with a vendor.

Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Kanani,

I told an American friend of mine from the Bay Area about the Japanese policy of mandatory parental involvement in PTA activities, and she expressed envy and admiration. She was the head of her school's PTA and determined to make a difference about a lot of issues, including government funding of various programs. The apathy of other parents infuriated and depressed her and she liked the idea of making PTA involvement a given.

Oddly enough, I'd have been happy to get involved in something that wasn't just for form's sake. My husband and I volunteered to be on the school patrol when we could, and we participated in a lot of PTA activities. But it was nowhere near enough. Here in Scotland, I've done close to zero for the PTA, but people still remember the time I baked brownies and served on the book stall.

I never buy the junk they sell at the fundraisers either -- you are quite right to cut out the middle man there.

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