The begging tone of the email that comes from the Room Mom on Monday (excuse me…the Support Manager) tells you right away how unpopular the PE volunteer spot in the first grader classroom can be. We’re talking private school, bumper crop of stay at home parents, a freaking WAIT LIST to be the monthly Mystery Reader, and still…that damn PE spot was open on Thursday and needing to be filled. I happily went to pull my working mom card until I looked at my schedule and realized…oh. I’m off on Thursday afternoon. I guess I actually COULD be in my daughter’s classroom (or, rather, the smelly cafeteria-turned-gymnasium). With 20 first graders. All itching to play games. And run wild. And risk concussions. And…ugh. I’m certain there’s a whiner or two in there as well.
I do not do whining. I do not do group activities with small people or concussions and I don’t even pretend to like most other people’s children very well. But I really want to be the Mystery Reader at some point, so I emailed the desperate class mom and said sure, what the hell. If I’m ever going to get the chance to show up and surprise my child and her friends, story book in hand, AND get to sit with the children in a quiet, controlled environment where heads will roll if there’s talking out of turn, I’d better pay my dues.
My caveat in the email to the class mom? Please ask the teacher to plan something for me to do with them. I love exercise and I love the theory of getting children to exercise and I especially love the idea of my child’s teacher getting a coffee break but, left to my own devices, this would entail all 21 of us strapping on our ear buds and going for a nice three mile run while listening to a podcast of This American Life. Probably not going to earn me any cool points. And, tragically, being the PE parent IS what makes you cool in this small person crowd. Kids beg us to be the PE volunteer. They speak jealously of so-and-so in their class whose mom came to do PE and played FREEZE DANCE and LINE TAG. I work full time. I am rarely the person who gets to take my daughter to school (often enough that I could pick her teacher out of a lineup, but barely), I am reminded always that I forgot to pack a treat in her lunch, I make her practice her violin every day. I have no cool points. I need help. So, if I could just do this PE thing for 30 minutes, I’d be IN.
Thursday arrives. There are no local natural disasters and not one of our patients in the morning dies, so I have no choice but to show up at my daughter’s school shortly after lunch. I arrive about 10 minutes early and sneak in to the classroom, only to be greeted by multiple children all reading SILENTLY. To themselves. You could hear a pin drop in there. I begin to sweat. Look at them! All of them, reading quietly, for God knows how long! Seriously, how long have they been sitting here, saving up their energy and aggression? This first grade teacher clearly runs a tight ship. These children are going to become ANIMALS when I take them to the cafeteria-turned-gym. They will eat me alive and the last thing I will remember before I die is the smell of overripe apples and stinky chicken nuggets.
But then! A surprise! A WONDERFUL SURPRISE. The teacher is going with me! To the gym! SHE IS GOING TO HELP ME. Maybe because I bribed her with a Starbucks vanilla latte, but still. I feel love in my heart for this woman. She will be there to ride herd on these crazy people and all she wants me to do is lead the kids in stretching while she gets herself organized. We walk to the gym and my daughter gets to lead the line with me, happily skipping while holding my hand. I wonder, looking down at her, is this what makes the kids so happy? The PE volunteer spot so popular with these short people? That their grown up appears and, because it is THEIR grown up, they get to lead the line and hold hands with the one they love so very much? So far, so good. Easy.
I am lame at leading stretches. I face these 20 first graders and limp my way through arm circles and runner’s stretches and maybe some jumping jacks, all of which would make my yoga-instructor mother cringe. But they don’t seem to care. Because there is LINE TAG in their future and SHARKS AND MINNOWS and SOMETHING INSANE THEY CALL ‘EVERYBODY IS IT!’ WHICH MAKES ME LOSE TEN YEARS OF MY LIFE. There are people crashing and burning all over this place. And one little chubby kid who runs his heart out but looks so red in the face I fear I may need to use my CPR skills. I spend the entire 25 minutes choosing children to be it (the teacher tells me this is her least favorite part, the choosing people to be special, so she lets me do it but I think she’s just trying to make me feel a little special), and darting my eyes around frantically as I watch the crashing and the burning. None of this fazes the teacher. Nothing. She calmly blows her whistle and calls children out and hugs the fallen and waits patiently for all to be quiet before explaining the next game. It is a level of patience and, quite frankly, blindness, that I can only aspire to.
At the end, she asks her class to give me a ‘whoop, whoop!’ for helping out. It is the most darling sound. It means my spell as PE helper is over and I can go home.
And go for a three mile run.