A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Cheese Logs of Guilt and Despair

Our PTA fundraiser starts this week!!!
Oh goodie!!!  I LOVE events that involve children touting Candy Cane Covers, Twist and Pout Lulu Lip Balm, and Heart and Flower Glitter Keychains!!! Moreover, I long to walk up to strangers and murmur, “Pssst, wanna buy a jalapeño sausage?  Only $10.50!”  This especially lights my fire (not to mention my Holiday Shimmer Votive Candle) when I am directly associated with (and thus morally culpable for) said fundraiser’s existence, via a newsletter that just went out to each and every University Park Elementary School family -- with my name on it. 
Sorry, sorry… I think my sarcasm might have been showing for a moment there.  I, um, need to work on that.
In all seriousness, I truly do not want to be the raining-on-the-parade snark-monster that I seem to be becoming.  I am clearly a bad, bad, human being, and no one is ever going to buy me that “World’s Best Mom” mug (catalog page 32) with the little pink heart on it.  I never realized that taking on the job of editor of the school newsletter – a monthly bulletin of events, news, info, and thanks put out by the PTA and school staff – would turn me into a bitter harpy.  I mean, what could be wrong with a publication that is used to thank our long-suffering science fair judges and to let parents know about cool opportunities available at the school library?
Indeed, for the most part, nothing is wrong with my volunteer task.  Putting the newsletter together is relatively simple and straightforward, and it makes me feel as if I’m doing something to help out, in the severely underfunded world of public education.  The PTA takes on some fantastic, enriching, time-intensive projects: they bring in visiting authors and artists; they sew reflective tape on kids’ jackets to help keep them safe in the relentless dark of Fairbanks winters; they organizing the running club, the ski club, the gardening club, the book fair, the science fair, and the annual art competition; and to top things off, they bring everyone together for family fun nights and craft nights.  That they get all this done is impressive; that they make it happen on an annual budget of less than $50 per kid is superhuman.  Yeah, schools have no money.  Yeah, over-worked teachers, under-paid support staff, and over-busy parents are left to take up the slack.  This is not a new story.
I know that I want to help, to participate.  I might not be able to pull my weight, but I’d at least like to be dragging along a few concrete blocks or something.  So, once a month, I ask everyone for content, via email.  I nag them a couple of times.  I get articles and other tidbits.  I cram them into an ugly but serviceable six-page format.  I restrain myself to editing only for grammar, spelling, and factual correctness.  I order the print run.  Done.
Except that when I said “yes” to the job, it never occurred to me that, as nominal editor, I would not only feel slightly twitchy about other people’s word choices, but also downright conflicted about being compelled to include items that – well, is it too strong to say that they are at odds with my moral principles?
Um, what?  Nancy has moral principles about… PTA fundraisers?  The notion seems ludicrous.  Our PTA – like most PTAs, I’d guess – is made up of individuals so selfless, generous, and giving that I’m pretty much a cretinous boor in comparison.  One of my closest friends ran the annual fundraiser for years, until her daughter moved on to middle school, and I know from experience that this is a woman who is roughly eleventeen times nicer than I am.  She will quietly scrub other people’s mold without expectation of thanks or even notice.  She underwent major back surgery without ever complaining.  When I refused, year after year, to even look at the catalog of snazzy wrapping paper and artfully photographed chocolates, she just quietly stopped asking, with nary a miffed look.
I clearly have no right to sit back in my armchair and editorialize.  Way back last spring, when the deserving, kind, hard-working angels of the PTA first mentioned that they would be needing a new fundraising chairperson in the fall, I tentatively started an email chain about maybe – perhaps – shaking things up.  I found a few folks who maybe – tentatively – agreed with me.  And then… I got busy.  Stuff happened.  Work, family vacation, a zillion different summer camps, the library’s excellent Summer Reading Program, all the neighbors’ pets to care for...  And, yeah, I let the ball drop.  Autumn rolled around, and there I was, putting the super-duper-enthusiastic notice in the newsletter about the Catalogue of Awesome Holiday Magic (no, it’s not really called that).  So, not only was I a failure with no follow-through, I was a sell-out as well, by default.
So what, exactly, is my deal with the PTA’s annual money-raising scheme?  Why, when the brightly colored sales packages came home with my kids this week, did I cram them directly into the recycling, already annoyed by the wasted paper?
Well, I have a few reasons.  Bear with me.
1)      The guilt conundrum.  This is at the top of the list, because I hate, hate, hate it.  If a hopeful child comes to the door with a Shiny Catalog of Awful Candles, it’s darned hard to say “no”, even if you have a violent socio-economic reaction to all object made of scented wax.  I detest being put in this position myself; I have zero desire to impose such a Catch-22 on others.  Especially people I actually LIKE.
2)      Bribery and competition.  Kids are given “incentive” prizes for selling lots of this stuff.  This sets up jealousies, and makes parents feel bad if they refuse to take part.  It also fills up houses with even more plastic crap, because the prizes are inevitably even more awful than the neon whistles and leaky bubble soap that come home from birthday parties.
3)      Buying local.  I want to support our school, but my support for the school is part of a bigger picture that includes the local community, local families, local jobs, and even the local ecosystem.  Sure, half the money from these sales goes to the school, but the other half instantly leaves the state.  I don’t even know what giant corporate entity it goes to, or where that entity is located, or what their economic practices are.
4)      Producing something useful.  Wouldn’t it be better to earn money by making things, creatively?  By helping people who need help?  By reducing and reusing, via a garage sale or auction?  By performing some useful service, like washing cars or shoveling snow?  Or even by strengthening social bonds through a pancake breakfast?
5)      The learning process.  Maybe it’s an idealistic notion, but I feel like school activities should – in one way or another – relate to teaching kids something.  Do we really want to teach kids about relentlessly touting items that they have never seen and know nothing about?  Granted, selling stuff is a job that many adults end up doing, and it’s certainly not, in itself, immoral to be “in sales”.  But shouldn’t we teach our children to question the quality, value, and provenance of what they are selling?  Eleven bucks for a six-ounce box of chocolates -- sight unseen and deliciousness unsmelled -- is a weird way to teach responsible marketing.
6)      Tight funds and fairness.  Our family is pretty lucky, in this regard.  We can (theoretically) afford some really seriously over-priced knick-knacks.  But UPK is a Title One school, and I hate to think that parents are being guilted into buying things they can’t afford.  Those who can afford to pay more should pay more (yeah, I’m kind of a socialist – but you already knew that).
7)      Free-range kids.  Should young children be wandering around selling things to strangers who might be creepy weirdos?  This seems to be a big worry for other parents.  Actually, it’s way down on my own list.  Within reason, I’m all in favor of a bit more independence among the household’s population of seven-year-olds.  Go ahead and talk to strangers, girls!  But… don’t get into their cars, and please don’t try to sell them anything.
8)      The Chocolate War.  Oh, come on, hasn’t anyone ever read The Chocolate War?  By Robert Cormier?  Seriously, people!  It’s a classic!
Ok.  That’s my rant.  It seems coherent, at least to me.  On the other hand, it leaves me awash with guilt, anxiety, and regret.  Because I could have done something about this. 
So… what do I do now?  I’m not going to sell anything.  I’m not going to ask my kids to sell anything.  They will probably be sad when other children earn horrible plastic prizes and accolades from authority figures.  And I will feel even worse.  Moreover, simply not selling anything doesn’t help at all with the problem that our schools are still underfunded.  The PTA sponsors some great activities (Free books!  A fabulous holiday creative-craft-making fair!)  They need money.   They need fifteen thousand dollars.  Roughly speaking, that amounts to about $25 per kid. 
So…  I’m making a deal with myself – and maybe with you, too, if you’ve had the patience to read this far.  First of all, I’m going to donate four times my share, outright.  Two kids, a hundred bucks each – that’s two hundred bucks.  Totally worth it, because the PTA (as already mentioned) is chock full of awesomeness.  And… here’s the best part… none of this money will go toward Cheese Log postage, Cheese Log paperwork, Cheese Log company overhead, Cheese Log incentive prizes, or luscious Cheese Log production! 
Second, I’m going to make a promise to you (assuming that the vast majority of people reading this blog are my friends and/or long-suffering family members, because who the heck else would be wasting their time on my ramblings?)  I’m going to promise you that I will not try to sell you any Cheese Logs!  Actually, I don’t think this catalog has that particular item.  So you’re doubly safe.  But I will also promise no set of hand-painted cheese spreaders, an item offered right there on page 15.  Also, no “Light Up Holiday Joy Figurine”.  And no “Family Wall Cling”.  And no “Crystal Angel Photo Keychain”.  And no “Decorative Tulip Candle Holder”. 
In return for this amazing Lack of Things, maybe you could do me a favor.  Get out your checkbook.  Write a check.  There’s no guilt involved here, because I won’t know whether you’ve done this, or whether you’ve sent one dollar, or fifty dollars, or some sort of foreign currency that will really shake things up, here in l’il ol’ Fairbanks.  I mean, I’ll be deeply grateful, but only in an abstract, anonymous, and guilt-free sense.  Make out your check to UPK PTA, and send it to University Park Elementary, 554 Loftus Rd., Fairbanks, AK 99709.  Or, heck, send your money to a different school instead, if you want.  They all need it.  Desperately.  They really do.
Oh, and NEXT year?  Next year I’m going to come up with a fantastic, lucrative, healthy, safe, useful, caring, community-building, educational fundraiser.  I could, um, maybe use a few ideas… and… anyone want to sign up for my committee? 
In the meantime, I’ll just be quietly compiling, formatting, and editing this most excellent school newsletter.

Addendum -- three days later:

I dutifully sent in the $200.  The following day, the kids hopped off the school bus and and happily informed me that prizes were not reserved only for those who sold items from The Catalog.  No, indeed!  My generosity had earned them this:

Today, she came home with this.   When wielded by an enthusiastic and strong-lunged seven-year-old, it makes a noise that would wake something that has been extinct since the Cretaceous Period. 

Karma can be rough.

1 comment:

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