By Cara McDonough
When I was in my twenties, there were life choices I viewed as a certain death of the soul; feats of maternal lameness I’d never commit, like discussing a baby’s nap schedule, purchasing a minivan or, god forbid, joining the PTA.
I didn’t know at the time what the PTA entailed, but as a young reporter covering the Board of Education as one of my beats at a weekly newspaper in North Carolina, I observed as outraged parents spoke (often shouted) their minds on a monthly basis. The schools were overcrowded! Class sizes were too large! Teachers didn’t have the supplies they needed!
This wasn’t the PTA which, I eventually learned, stands for “parent teacher association” and is composed of volunteers who fundraise and organize events at their school. These were passionate parents voicing their opinions at a public county meeting. But at that age, parental involvement all looked the same to me, and it looked bad. I wouldn’t be one of those mothers, I promised myself. I’d remain on the sidelines when it came to things like publicly advocating for less standardized testing, planning book fairs and whatnot.
That was then and you know the rest of the story. I’m now 42, the owner of a Honda Odyssey and parent to three kids. When they were babies, I talked incessantly about their nap schedules with my new mom friends (mom friends!). Incessantly. As the years went on, I increasingly became the parent I never imagined I’d be, engaged in activities like spending weekend mornings on the local soccer field, grateful for the structure of afterschool activities.
And then, this fall, I agreed to become secretary of our elementary school’s PTA, immersing myself further in the realm of actual adulthood, which includes family discussions about meal planning and excited trips to IKEA.
Being helpful to others, it turns out, is something I’ve craved as an adult, especially in this inconceivable year, with a raging pandemic and political stakes that felt way too high.
When 2020 started unraveling in mid-March, I felt decidedly unhelpful.
I’m a writer, mostly publishing human interest stories and essays about my own life. This spring, my work shifted to covering topics from a coronavirus angle, but I couldn’t write our country to safety. I wanted to help in some way, using the skill set I already possessed. I cheered on grocery store clerks and teachers from my sweatpants in my living room. And I started wondering about ways I could give back.
I felt, as many of us did, rudderless. Drifting in a storm beyond control.
So, in late summer, when I spoke to a few fellow parents about joining our elementary school’s PTA board as secretary, I decided this was a way I could stay in my lane and be helpful. My lane is writing and while it may not be “essential,” it is, nevertheless, a skill. Not on the frontline, but in my neighborhood, at least.
While I couldn’t resolve all the emotions and concerns surrounding our school’s reopening plan, I did know how to coherently type an email to parents about supporting our teachers. After years taking notes during interviews for my stories, I also felt capable to accurately take minutes at our PTA meetings.
Filling the post immediately delivered a large dose of positivity, especially welcome as the daily news continued to deliver despairing details about the pandemic and I wanted, more than ever, to do something constructive. I was immediately buoyed by the camaraderie involved in working with my co-officers and other PTA volunteers, and incredibly impressed by their skills. They knew how to do things like balance the budget, craft inspirational Instagram posts and operate under strict PTA bylaws.
Meanwhile, I happily wrote emails to our membership and edited thank you notes to town officials. I gladly took on communications-type jobs like helping to plan school-wide webinars and creating a set of FAQs with questions like: “What do I do if my child has cold or other symptoms?”
We’re battling coronavirus the way a PTA does, holding our meetings via Zoom and planning a mask fundraiser for the school. I can imagine my involvement looking much different when life, hopefully, is somewhat normal again next fall, including talking face-to-face with PTA members I’ve never met in person.
I’m living a life less revolutionary than the one I’d envisioned when I was much younger, one that didn’t include regularly cleaning Goldfish crackers from in between seats in the way back of a Honda Odyssey.
These minor responsibilities at school, however, feel important in their own right, making this unruly year slightly more manageable. Life may feel unmoored for more months to come, but there are ways we can all be helpful in our own little corners of the world.
Cara McDonough is a writer who lives in Connecticut with her family. She covers many topics in her stories, but enjoys writing about the everyday moments in life best. You can read more of her work at caramcduna.com.
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