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Suburban Diary

Coming at last, a break from lending a hand

Online signup message seeking help from parents with eighth-grade graduation.handout

My younger child’s final term of middle school began last week. Because our singular school in Carlisle covers grades K-8, the end of eighth grade feels particularly meaningful. My daughter has attended this campus since she was 5 years old, and now she’s almost 14. I suppose it’s inevitable that recent weeks have brought tears, nostalgia, fits of sentimentality, sudden bouts of anxiety, and many questions about what lies ahead.

My daughter, on the other hand, is doing just fine with it.

All right, I’m exaggerating a little. The nostalgia, sentimentality, and mild anxiety are all real for me. But it’s only April. I haven’t cried yet. That can wait until graduation night.


Except it actually can’t, because I’m the parent volunteer who is overseeing graduation. I’ll be busy with all the logistics. So if I cry at all, it might be with relief once graduation is successfully behind us. If the programs arrive on time, the folding chairs are properly arranged, the food at the reception is ample, and every child gets professionally photographed with corsage or boutonniere in place, I will have done my job, or at least the many other parents who responded to my request to take on those individual tasks will have done their jobs.

And it won’t be relief only about graduation being successfully over. Volunteer responsibilities began on Day One of my elder child’s kindergarten debut 12 years ago and never let up. I’m no different from the majority of parents I know in this regard. There’s always something to sign up for, and each one brings new memories. The morning at band practice when a boy threw up and all the boys around him offered high-fives and congratulated him on his aim. The time I supervised seventh-grade indoor recess and the entertainment consisted of one child layering on the winter jackets of every other child in the class and then inviting them to punch him through the 20 layers. The school dance when the gym became so humid that the youngsters made a game of hydroplaning across puddles of sweat.


Of course, the faculty might remember my volunteer efforts for a different reason: the year I chaired the teacher appreciation luncheon and we ran out of food, leaving the less-assertive teachers at the end of the line to eat desiccated rice from the bottom of the last emptied chicken curry casserole. That event came to be known in the annals of Carlisle Public Schools history as “the gluten-free, dairy-free, tree-nut-free, peanut-free, in fact altogether calorie-free luncheon.”

I’m not sure when volunteering became so systemic. I grew up here and attended the same school as my children, and as I remember it, we had room parents and occasional library volunteers, and that was about it. No recess watchers, math helpers, lunchroom monitors, or kindergarten bus buddies. “But how did things get done?” I asked my mother. She admitted she didn’t really know, but she was pretty sure that when the teacher directing the seventh-grade play needed costumes, that teacher just called a few of the parents whose kids were in the production and asked them to stitch something together. She didn’t form a committee.

Unquestionably, many aspects of the system benefit from being a lot more organized now. While it’s true that our parent-teacher association rivals General Electric for its organizational structure, not to mention its communications protocols, it is also a lot more diligent than it once was about compliance with nonprofit regulations. Kindergarten bus pals alleviate much of the anxiety some small children experience in the first week of school. And interacting with your children’s classmates in the cafeteria or on the playground is a good way to stay involved in their lives.


Yet I still don’t think I’ll be sorry when all this volunteer work is behind me. For one thing, as the foodless luncheon proved, I’m not very good at it. But in a way, perhaps that’s been one of the benefits of volunteering. It offered me the chance to exercise a new skill set, and it certainly gave me a greater appreciation for what it takes to be a professional educator.

And, anyway, that recess when the seventh-grader layered 20 other ski parkas over his own and invited people to punch him? Unforgettable. Nothing that fun ever happens in my actual workplace.

So for these final few weeks, I’ll try to appreciate every moment. Just as soon as I get through this month’s Book Fair, wrap up the May library schedule, recruit parents to bring Popsicles to Field Day, and whip something up for the faculty appreciation luncheon. Someone else is in charge of that particular event this time around, and no doubt I’m not the only one celebrating that fact.

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at