Sunday, 4 January 2015

Confessions of a school volunteer

Life as a school mum is peppered with call-outs for volunteers.  And when it comes to volunteering, there are those who do and those who don't.  If I'm going to be honest, my instinct is to be in the latter category. But I have tried, with varying degrees of success.

Each time I tried (and each time things went pear-shaped ... again)  I learned something new: about myself, about the art of volunteering.

Here are my five most formative volunteering experiences and what I learned from each one.

1. The white elephant stall 


The first time I volunteered I didn't actually volunteer.  My friend Antonia volunteered on my behalf. She had gone to the P&C meeting to see what she could do to help with the school fete.  When they asked who would do the white elephant stall, she shot up her hand and volunteered both our names. 


Her thinking was: we both like second hand shops, so who better to run one?


It was a nice idea in theory and I was keen to start stock-taking awesome bric a brac. I even went to the newsagent and bought some cute little price tag thingies with string so that we might attach them to all the quirky treasures that surely would inhabit our picture-perfect white elephant stall.


I imagined us sitting on stools, in big straw hats, chatting away sipping coffee, while people "oohed" and "aahed" over our gorgeous second-hand wares. We would be quite the curators, I imagined.


However, we had not counted on two things:


a) Sorting, pricing and storing the contents of a white elephant stall takes top notch big-picture organisational skills.

b) When you say this:

Please donate to the white elephant stall

Most people hear this:

Please dump your worthless rubbish in the school hall: free council clean up!

We got bits of wood and wire, broken mugs, bags of old shoes that not even a hobo would want for free, mismatching wine glasses, ice bucket holders (sans ice buckets) mouldy clothing including underwear and lots and lots of foot spas.  More foot spas than was humanly decent.

Faced with this mountain of detritus, we soon realised we did not have the required skills to deal with it.  Adding to the problem was the fact that it was taking up considerable space in the school hall and the music master was not happy about it.

There followed various inept attempts to move our "stock"  somewhere else, none of which came to fruition and the first hint that we were not equipped for this task.
Next we set about "organising it." I did random unhelpful things like write prices on things with an indelible black marker pen while Antonia spent an inordinate amount of time talking to herself while sorting and grouping things in to price points.  Only to realise she couldn't keep track because meanwhile I was moving things around and writing on them with a black marker pen.

In short, we were both indians and we needed a chief.

So far, not so good.

The day of the fete we set up our stall and everything was going fine: until  2pm when we realised that  if we didn't start a fire sale like, RIGHT NOW we would again be stuck with mountains of junk to deal with after the fete finished. And given our track record, the school hall would not be offered as a "storage" option.

This stuff would be coming home with us if we didn't start getting rid of it.

We started spruiking like a pair of pros.
"Everything $2!"
"Everything must go!"
"FREE foot spa!"
This was precisely when the head of the P&C witnessed me selling off her "priceless" and lovingly donated gold-rimmed wine glass set (of five, yes five)  for the fire sale amount of $2. (Truth be told, I was about to GIVE them away.)

Honestly, I thought she was going to send me to detention.  She rushed over, snatched them back and told me they were "worth much more than $2 thank you very much!"

At the end of the day, still sitting on our mound of rubbish we were mercifully bailed out by a fast-thinking school dad who organised for Vinnies to come and pick up our remaining unsold "stock".

Lesson: If you are an indian, do not apply to be a chief.

2. The cake stall


My next foray into volunteering was to heed a simple but plaintive school newsletter call out:

Cake stall helpers required. Please call Julie on 9724 5566

I called the phone number, as required, and was slightly disappointed when I was not greeted with gushing declarations of thanks  for volunteering my "helper" services. In fact, Julie seemed completely disinterested in having heard from me. I'm pretty sure I heard her yawn in my ear as I explained why I was calling.

"Just come to the senior staff room at 2pm on Tuesday." She said wearily.

I turned up with my best helper apron on.  In my mind, I was imagining a fun communal vibe as all the helpers laid out cakes, gossiped and became lifelong friends.

I stood at the door of the staff room looking for Julie.  Then I spotted a bored-looking woman standing over a table full of cakes quickly put two and two together.

"Julie? I'm Penny, we spoke on the phone."

"Take this cake and put it on the table outside." She said, simply.

I did that and wandered back inside, keen to do some more "helping." I saw about 10 other "helpers" being directed by Julie to take one cake each out to the table.  No one was having much fun. No one was bonding, and apparently no one was really needed.  It seemed Julie was just humouring us all and allowing us to help her because she assumed we had such empty lives we had nothing better to do than ferry cakes one at a time from one table to another.

After the cakes were set out on the table we all stood in awkward silence and waited for further instructions from our Dear Leader. Julie just went about her business setting prices on the cakes, sorting out her float money and pretending the rest of us didn't exist.

In light of my expectations, the stiff silence and the lack of bonhomie was tragic.

After about 10 minutes of pretending it was normal to stand in an empty school playground with an apron on doing absolutely nothing I decided to make like a banana and split. I never saw Julie again and I vowed never to volunteer for anything with her name attached. Which pretty much cancelled me out of most volunteering activities at the school because Julie, in spite of her chronic lack of leadership skills,  was the Big Cheese of volunteering.

Lesson: Don't expect to make friends or be thanked.

3. Canteen duty


After ascertaining that P&C people didn't actually want the amateurs amongst us messing with their work, I decided to volunteer for a different department: the canteen.  Apparently they actually were desperate for helpers and added to that, I have done enough time in cafes and pubs to know how to put together a mean salad sandwich and count back change out of a five.

It was a promising beginning. The canteen coordinator was a lovely 50-ish woman who practically cried with thanks when I turned up. So far so good. Gratitude: tick.  She was also a very good delegator and gave me a big list of tasks to complete before the recess bell sounded.  Apparently I was the best helper she'd ever had and she kept telling me so.  I was having the greatest day ever.

Things went a bit pear-shaped however when I apparently did not properly police the two queues at the canteen window: one queue was for junior school kids and the other queue was for senior school kids. There was also a yellow line behind which they had to stand, UNLESS it was their turn, at which point they were allowed to step forward and state their business.

One particularly beguiling little girl kept turning up in the markedly shorter junior school queue. She would smile at me like the cat that got the cream and buy another chicken chilli tender before thanking me in a most charming way. I thought she was just taken with me, because I was so welcoming and motherly.

"She's not a junior!" A kid yelled at me. "You're supposed to tell her to get in the other queue!"

Pretty soon there was an angry mob of kids at the window demanding to know why I had let someone rort the system. Apparently this was a serious offence and "she does it all the time!" But I refused to be drawn into their petty dibby-dobbing mostly because I did not want to admit to myself that I had been "had."

"Queue, schmew!" I shouted finally over the dibby-dobbing rabble.

Which was when the orderly two-queue recess rush became a disorderly "everybody bunch at the window" free-for-all.

When my friendly canteen coordinator returned from the cool room to see the chaos I had unleashed she shouldered me out of the way and started shouting instructions about two orderly queues and staying behind the yellow line.

Some weeks later, the school-run not-for-profit canteen system went under and the canteen contract was put out to tender. I'm not saying my little 'queue schmew' stunt was the cause, but I have a feeling my amateur antics were the final nail in the coffin.

Lesson: Just because there's no pay, doesn't mean there are no rules.


4. Parent band

By this stage, I was extremely reluctant to stick my head up ever again.  But just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

One morning, I was minding my own business at the local coffee shop when two of my favourite school mums (a particularly rebellious pair who had recently infiltrated the P&C and started wreaking havoc amongst the straight-laced Julies of the world) snuck up behind me and said:

"Ah-ha! Just the person we've been looking for!"

They had a proposition for me.  Would I put together a parent band to perform on the day of the school centenary fete? (Important sidebar: in another life, I was a relatively successful indie musician.)

My mission, if I chose to accept it, was to hand pick my own cracking hot band out of available parents and play a few awesome tunes to impress the dignitaries and politicians who would be walking through the school on the day.

"Your call, you do what you want, you're in charge. Just make it good." Said Agent 1.

They also had "intel"  A video of the previous parent band which they played to me on their i-phone.

"See this?" Said Agent 2. "This is what we don't want."

It was a bunch of parents having a really fun time making a very awful noise with drums,  Casio keyboard, flute and tambourine.  Apparently it was their version of House of the Rising Sun. It wasn't any version I'd ever heard, let's just put it that way.

And once again, flattery made a fool of me.  But in my defence this task was right in my comfort zone and the one area in life where I am actually comfortable taking on the role of leader.

What could possibly go wrong?

I accepted the challenge, imagining myself as a veritable Jack Black in School of Rock. I could whip these parents into shape and show them how to ... pop-rock-with-a-country-twist.  How hard could it be?

What I did not foresee was all the previous 'parent band' members, the have-a-go funsters,  assuming they would be included.  I decided to give them enough rope to hang themselves.  With my core musicians already in place ( a terrific bunch of naturally talented hobby players who were prepared to let me lead) we invited the others to come to rehearsal and show us what they had.

They came, they sang, they stank up the rehearsal room and remained completely obvlivious to the fact that they were creating a stench of mammoth, "Oh my god why would you want to do that in public?" proportions.

I remembered then that complete lack of talent always comes hand in hand with a complete lack of self-awareness.

Added to that, they expected the rest of us - the ones with the actual musical ability -to simply back them like a karaoke band. They came with all manner of ridiculous song suggestions, no charts (musical notation that might have helped us do their bidding) and the expectation that we would stand in the background spontaneously playing whatever song came into their head at the time.

After rehearsal I went home and sent an email to Agents 1 and 2,  tendering my resignation as "band leader." I couldn't deal with these nutcases and nor was I prepared to:

a) perform in public with them
b) be the one to tell them their services were not needed

As a last-ditch compromise, I suggested we allot them one song each in the hour-long set; but they were to bring charts to the next rehearsal and there would be no, House of the Rising Sun or Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend.

Agent 1 was having none of it. True to her cat-amongst-the-pigeons form she fired off a group email informing everyone bluntly and with no apology,  who was "in" and who was "out."

Then as a final "so there" she effectively signed my death warrant:

"Penny is in charge, what she says goes!"

Fun times in the playground after that, as I became, "The diva who kicked everyone out of the parent band."

But the show did go on. And in case you're wondering, my hand-picked musical cohorts and I rocked the weather shed on the day of the centenary celebrations.  We rocked it like  ... a bunch of 40-something parents playing some very acceptable country pop rock.

However, a lot of people still hate me and I can no longer enter the school playground for fear of having a "Kick me I'm a diva" sign taped to my back.

Lesson: Don't get involved, no matter what the circumstances. Just don't get involved. Ever.


5. The scone and coffee stall

But take heart, these tales of volunteering horror do have a happy ending.  When my eldest child started high school I took advantage of the "clean slate" and decided to give this volunteering thing one last go.  Going with my adage of sticking to my skill set, I put my name down for the "coffee stand" at the annual school open day.

Soon after volunteering my services,  a very organised and efficient email arrived in my inbox: I was allotted a one hour shift on the day and told where to show up including a very helpful map of the school attachment.

I turned up to find a well-oiled machine going on in the school's home ec. kitchen.  Students with chef's hats on were pumping out trays of perfect scones one after the other. Another set of students were then jamming and creaming them. And yet another two were manning the espresso machine in a most professional and efficient manner.

My instructions were simple: take orders, deliver orders to tables. I could do that. And I did.

Clearly, someone "big-picture smart" was in charge; all I had to do was follow instructions. It was busy and fun and I even made some friends.

Lesson: It's a numbers game. One out of five ain't bad.