We all know a power PTA mom — you can spot her a mile away in the carpool lane because she’s always the first in line.
You can smell her before you see her. It’s the telltale scent of homemade cookies fresh from the oven for that day’s fundraising bake sale.
You can see her hands caked in paint from helping with the messiest classroom project of the year, or making 700 copies of the holiday program, or leading meetings about traffic safety, or schmoozing the principal (with a platter homemade cookies baked especially for the office staff).
You can ask her any questions about the inner workings of the school and she will know the answers, from how to procure permits for a Halloween fair and other fund or “fun”-raising activities, your school’s district ranking, plus a detailed history of its “Great Schools” scores (including all reviews), which teachers your kid must have/avoid, and so much more.
You can love her, hate her, respect her, fear her, appreciate her, revile her… but you will always be glad that she’s doing what she’s doing because you sure as hell wouldn’t want to.
The first time I tangled with a power PTA mom, my son went to a cooperative preschool. Despite the fact it was very egalitarian, as we all had to work weekly shifts and attend monthly meetings, there were still a few who elevated volunteering to an art form — particularly the president of the parents’ association. She had four children, presided over a fistful of boards, and was also one of the hottest realtors in town.
“I don’t know how she does it,” was a common refrain, but I personally never questioned it — I thought she was great. That was until I made an off-color joke at an evening meeting about the local food co-op moving so slowly on launching a giving back program that they must’ve been smoking their own produce.
At 8:00 a.m. the next morning, I got a call from the president dressing me down for making a pot joke. She told me that she had received several angry phone calls from people who felt it was inappropriate. After I tore myself up for a few hours, I calmed down enough to rationally consider the likelihood of her getting phone calls after the socially acceptable cut-off of 9:00 p.m. or before the socially acceptable early morning call time of 8:00 a.m. — nil.
And then I realized that PTA moms wield a lot of power, and beneath their calm, benevolent façades often lurk potent opponents with tools including fear, shame, and intimidation.
It’s a mom-eat-mom world.
This experience reminded me that life is high school, and the return to the schoolyard can bring back some powerful — and uncomfortable — feelings.
So imagine my surprise (Read: terror) when we moved into a new town, and I found out that the elementary school PTA president lived right across the street.
Before I could run and hide, she came over to warmly greet me and my family with homemade cookies, an older daughter who could just about babysit, and a boy the same age as my son. She took me to the elementary school, filled me in on all the tedious details of enrolling AND how to make sure my son got the best first grade teacher. Thanks to her, we were up and running in a week flat.
I tried to follow in her footsteps and volunteered to be on that year’s Gala Committee. Despite the fact that I got the worst possible job — donation solicitation — I did pretty well. Still, my effort did nothing to raise my stature, as the committee head already had her posse. The night of the Gala she thanked everyone but me.
That stung, but it also taught me a couple of things: volunteering is a job you do not for thanks, but for the cause (DUH!), and also, the PTA is rife with characters straight out of fiction.
In fact, these experiences (and a few more) inspired my novel, Bitch’in Suburbia. Please enjoy the Prologue.
Whatever happened to the PTA president who lives across the street from me, you might wonder.
A year after we moved in, a new school that spanned K-8th grade openedm and she headed the charge to leave our old elementary school to those new, greener pastures. A number of us followed, and in subsequent years, she established a solid basis for fundraising and “fun”raising including a kick ass annual Halloween fair, amazing field trips, an all-school talent show, and a ton of other traditions.
Along the way, she made close friends and a couple of enemies, too. Because that’s the nature of the she-beast — there’s always another Type A Tootsie waiting to fill your shoes (or steal your shoes, knock you off your shoes, etc.). She kept them all equally close, and I’m pretty sure that’s how she got so much done.
Because after all, this is not your mama’s PTA. Nowadays, the funds that are raised aren’t for the extras, they are for the essentials that schools need. Like a nurse, a PE program, a computer lab, books, classroom supplies — even paper.
My friend, neighbor and ex-PTA president was honored last weekend at the annual Gala. She got an engraved glass trophy and her name on the Parents’ Center wall (the first on the plaque). And she left a legacy — not just for her two kids, but thousands of children to come.
At the Gala, I could tell that not everyone knew the ex-PTA president. But they certainly felt her, and I saw several of the newbies getting choked up when she talked about looking at colleges for her daughter.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up, too. The writing’s on the Parents’ Center wall, and my days volunteering at my kids’ school is numbered, too.
So if you see me selling wrapping paper or (wo)manning the bake sale table, please buy a little something. Because the life cycle of the PTA mom is brief, but then again, a mother’s work supporting her kids is never done.