Fake It ‘til You Make It: A Guide to Volunteering (and Life)

Published in The Barrington Times on Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

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My kitchen. Mostly dark. 9 pm. Before going upstairs for bed, I looked over my (actual paper) calendar for the following day and saw the words “HMS Book Fair, 7:45 am,” scribbled in the corner.

Yikes! 7:45? In the morning? I grabbed my reading glasses and looked again.

Yup.

What could have possibly possessed me to volunteer that early in the day, especially when I had to be in Boston for a 10:30 writing class?

The morning madness of 10 year olds at the Hampden Meadows book fair is intense. Every child in that school suddenly needs to – Must! Absolutely! -purchase an eraser in the shape of a donut and a bookmark covered in minions before homeroom. Items they didn’t know they needed or wanted are suddenly very important to them! It’s worse crowd control than midnight at Best Buy on Black Friday, I swear.

So I steeled myself for the next day’s pandemonium while also pretending to be excited. “Zoe, remember, you and I are going to school early tomorrow to help out at the book fair!”

My daughter smiled drowsily from under her covers and gave me a thumb’s up. She likes when I volunteer at school.

And that’s why I do it. This may sound kind of silly, but I feel like a celebrity when I show up at Hampden Meadows. I sign in at the office and stick on my nametag and, suddenly, as if by some kind of magical instinct, my daughter senses that her mom has entered the building.

There is a shift in the air on the playground, a crackle in the universe that comes from my particular mommy-ness. Or maybe Zoe looks at the clock and recalls when time I said I’d be arriving. Doesn’t matter how it happens. Bam! She appears in the front hall as if conjured and squeezes me with a huge hug, as if she hasn’t seen me for ages. It’s a fabulous greeting! Much better than the one I get when I wake her up in the morning and she rolls over and growls, “Go away. Now.”

At school, I get: “Mommy!!! You’re here!”

Next, a group of legging-clad, cutely-stylish girls with glasses and braces and dimples will surround me and say, “Hi, Zoe’s mom!”

So, no, 7:45 isn’t that bad, when you think about it that way.

Friday morning. Walked the dog, got dressed, packed lunches, fed dog, fed selves, packed backpack, packed folder of notes for Boston class, put on makeup, checked self in mirror, got in car. Arrived at Hampden Meadows before other volunteers.

Phew!

Then what?

7:49. I positioned myself behind the tables and tried to look official, like Vanna White.

“Hey, Zo, how do you think we work these cash registers?” I whispered. I defer to my 10-year-old on many important questions, especially those related to the use of technology. She shrugged. A teacher walked by and leaned over, flicking on the switches of each machine.

Wow. Like that, I guess. With the switch!

7:51. Panic filled my belly as I realized that children wanting to buy stuff would be arriving at any moment and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

It’s not a feeling I enjoy, this cluelessness, but its one I often feel in Barrington. Since moving here from my hometown of Scarsdale, NY a year and a half ago, I have gone from the expert on all things to the complete novice.

In Scarsdale, I was in charge of the elementary school book fair. I also ran the school play, and taught an art appreciation course, and helped out in the library, and taught in the district for eight years, and, oh, you get the picture.

In Rhode Island, I know nothing about anything and it’s very disconcerting.

One of the biggest losses is that the volunteer service hours I accrued in Scarsdale did not transfer across state lines. All the New York days and weeks and months on the PTO clock, of time spent wrapping gift baskets for raffles in cellophane, of shushing Oompa Loompahs backstage, of swiping credit cards and pressing buttons with the confidence of a leader…gone! Now I’m the vacant-looking lady scratching her head, heart hammering in her chest, hoping to remember everyone’s names and charging for tax when she shouldn’t be. (Sorry about that, by the way. And is it Mary Ann or Anne Marie?)

7:54. Backup arrived. Not one, but three very competent PTO members started making things happen. Yay! Money was found to stock the cash registers and I was given a quick lesson on how to scan items.

8:06. Forty kids stood in a mob in front of me, wanting to check out. Where did they all come from? Zoe and I kicked it into high gear. “Zo, you scan and then I’ll push these buttons and then you take the cash and count it and then give it to me to put in the till and make change!”

“Got it!” Zoe said. And, boy, did she.   She was extremely helpful and, perhaps most importantly, she was making me look good. Love that!  We high-fived.

At 8:17, a boy arrived with $15.00 in quarters, creating a potentially devastating turn of events. I instructed Zoe to move off to the side with him while I checked out the next student in line. Only, the next one was a situation all her own, a young girl with origami money. What is origami money, you ask? It is comprised of dozens of single bills folded and folded and folded again until each one looks like a little gem – a dollar bill bird here, a rose buck there. They appear magically from the depths of one’s jeans pockets, or have been clenched so tightly in one’s small fist that they are handed over sticky and limp.

Origami money, for the record, makes me break out into a cold sweat.

I began to unfold the bills, narrating my progress. “And that’s one…two…three dollars!” To my left, Zoe stacked and counted quarters. “Seven…eight…nine dollars!”

At this point, a father with places to go sighed audibly and nudged his child to move into the next lane. I agreed heartily with his decision.

At last, the final call to homeroom was made. Kids dispersed like leaves in a gusty wind. I kissed my daughter goodbye.

“We did it!” I said, relief filling my bloodstream with fresh oxygen, my heart proud. We had battled the crowds in order to help the PTO, true. But even more so, we had taken one step closer to belonging, to feeling at home in our new hometown.

We had faked it until we had made it.

I released Zoe and waved as she disappeared around the corner, hoping fervently that she would enjoy her day in her new world with her new friends.

And then I went off to find mine.

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