“You got your Freshmen, ROTC guys, Preps, J.V. jocks, Unfriendly black hotties, Girls who eat their feelings, Girls who don’t eat anything, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet and the worst: Beware of Plastics.”
Mean Girls. Don’t lie, you know you’ve seen it. It’s a fantastic movie about the odd social hierarchy that has ruled the hallways of American high schools for years. And while it’s mostly tongue in cheek, it’s fascinatingly accurate. Guys, you might not know this, but girls are mean. Like, really mean. And holy cow, as they get older and approach middle age, they get meaner, and sometimes they even get smarter.
That, my friends, is a really bad combination. And when they ship their spawn off to school for the first time, they realize that THEY CAN GET THE GANG BACK TOGETHER. And they’re no longer Plastics. They have a new name: The PTA.
I’ve never felt the urge to be terribly involved at my kids’ school. When my oldest started kindergarten, I had a three-day old newborn and a two-year old at home. Volunteering was just sort of out of the question at that point—plus, my kid rode the bus to and from school each day, so I’m certain I actually stepped foot inside the school twice; once for Open House, and once for Parent Teacher Conferences. When the oldest boy was a first grader, we moved to Colorado. After a year of getting settled, the middle boy was entering Kindergarten. It was at this point that it dawned on me that maybe I should, you know, do more at school. I was also ready to meet more “friends with kids,” and in my naïve mind, volunteering at school seemed like a good way to do that.
I entered the Lion’s Den (no, not the porn shop) one Thursday in November when I attended my first PTA meeting. And there, right before my eyes, was the main mean girl herself—Regina George come to life, only now she’s 40 years old. Her Lululemon pants were proudly on display—no knock-offs for her. Regina’s crowning glory is still her hair. It’s long and horrendously impractical for her lifestyle, but there’s no way she would Rapunzel that shit, for fear of losing her identity as “The Queen.” Flanked on her sides are her very own “Gretchen” and “Karen,”circa 2017. They are the PTA President, Fundraising Chair, and Membership Chair, and it’s clear they run the show—the whole show. And they’ve been running it for years.
They sit at a long table at the front of the library with what look like binders full of women; two Starbucks cups per person -which you can decipher via the lipstick stains on each one- and the ultimate Mom status symbol, the (fake) designer bag. Regina stands up to reach for one of her binders and her impractical workout jacket spills open – I see that she’s STILL wearing an “I’m with Her” campaign shirt. It’s a week out from Thanksgiving, so you do the math. It is clear as the clocks ticks down to 6:30pm that I am about to be entirely entertained.
The PTA meeting itself was relatively uneventful until the end when everyone was gathering their belongings to hurry home to pour their large-ish glass of Chardonnay. That is precisely when “Regina” stood up and announced the executive board’s latest and greatest idea for a fundraiser. They would be hosting a party…..no, not a party, a fucking gala! Not only that, but a gala where they would be raising funds for a new playground and celebrate the accomplishments of the PTA.
“Did she say playground?” I remember thinking, wondering what in the world was wrong with the playground outside. In addition, I also knew that my kindergartener’s class sits on the floor while they’re doing their writing and math because there wasn’t enough money left to buy chairs for a third kindergarten class at the beginning of the school year. She gave no other details that evening. On the way out the door, a Regina wannabe handed out a sheet of paper that I realized on my way to my car was a copy of the budget. I literally stopped in my tracks when I saw the bottom line. The school PTA had $150,000 in the bank. Again, no chairs in the classroom—but playground!
Don’t let anyone tell you differently; the PTA is all about serving up whatever services them. And, they give zero you-know-whats about any injustice that may be served on the side. In my opinion, it’s supposed to be an organization that supports the teachers and, through that support, facilitates parental involvement in a school. The Mission Statement of the National PTA is “To make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.” I got home, and I couldn’t believe what I was reading on the this poorly done accounting ledger. The PTA had given each teacher $200 to spend on supplies for their classroom at the beginning of the year. I scoffed at that, as I myself had spent nearly that much on each child simply buying what was on the supply list for a kindergartener and third grader. I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t seen any teachers at the meeting, and nary an administrator. Most monies were allocated to the following header: “Student Prizes.” Student Prizes? What the heck was that? Something didn’t add up.
But I was about to find a way for the PTA to spend some of that cash. On Friday mornings, I read to the Kindergarteners. They’re so full of wonder and excitement and happiness that for 20 minutes or so you will not feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It was on the Friday following the meeting that a little girl raised her hand after we finished our book. I will never, ever forget what she said. “I like coming to school. I like coming to school to see my friends. I think about my friends when I’m sad in my Mom’s car at night.” I stopped and locked eyes with the teacher, who looked as bewildered as I felt. “Talk to me later,” she mouthed. What was she saying? Could she actually mean she lived in her car?
The teacher explained the situation to me. Long story short, the girl’s father had skipped town. The mother had gotten behind on the rent and defaulted, leading to an eviction. They slept in her truck and bathed in gas station bathrooms. That afternoon, I sat with the Mother on the (fully functional) playground swings while we waited for the dismissal bell to ring. I had seen her before—I wondered why she wore ratty sweatpants every day and seemed unkempt, and I was ashamed at how I’d passed judgement on her and her child in the past.
“Please don’t say anything,” she pleaded. “Please don’t say anything because she loves it here and I don’t want them to take her from what she loves.” Something about how she phrased it struck me at my core. She didn’t care about her daughter being taken from her—she knew that she had made some bad decisions and that they were negatively impacting her daughter. But she didn’t want her to be removed from school, a place where she felt loved and safe and happy. It was at that moment that I decided that my mission would be to get this woman back on her feet and make sure that her daughter had what she needed to start down the road to success. I already knew from an earlier conversation that the teacher had bought her a winter coat and gloves and boots and bought her school supplies. I also found out that she kept a little toothbrush and a hairbrush in her desk, and quickly and quietly every morning, she brushed her teeth in the classroom sink and tied her hair back. I knew I couldn’t say anything to the administration for fear of interference. Somebody needed to make this child’s potential a reality. And, what do you know: that’s the Mission Statement of the PTA.
So, I called The President Head Bitch in Charge.
Without naming names, I explained the situation. I explained that I felt this was a perfect opportunity to make some holiday magic for a family in desperate need. That we couldn’t control the Mother’s decisions in the future, but we could make sure they had a hotel room for a few weeks, some food to eat, and some clean clothes and toiletries. I told her that I would initiate everything and even take up an anonymous collection among parents to help offset the cost to the PTA, but that it would be nice for her to feel like she had the school community rallying around her. I was quite proud of myself for my spiel and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I used notecards to remind me of my points.
She sighed. Deeply. “I’m sorry. What was your name? I have so much on my mind.” Before I could answer, she went on, “This isn’t something we do. We work very hard as an organization to ensure that we can support the school and the students. There are so many things to buy and do that if I responded to something like this, we would never have money to spend on anything else.” Immediately my thoughts flashed back to the accounting ledger. “Hey, I get it,” I said, “I was at the last meeting and clearly you have a lot on the agenda. But, just for my own clarification, what does ‘Student Prizes’ cover?”
“OH!” Prez was suddenly excited. “We reward students for hitting their fundraising goals! It’s such a wonderful system and we’ve brought in literally thousands of dollars more in fundraising that we’re able to turn back around to students and their families.” I suddenly remembered the large check the boys had asked me to write towards the school Fun Run. They had needed to raise a certain amount of money so they could get Ice Cream from a food truck and use a bounce house during a Friday afternoon at school. I didn’t think about it at the time, but what did the parents do who couldn’t write a larger check? I realized they didn’t write the check, and probably didn’t think about it for a minute longer. But while my kids were enjoying the bouncing, their kid was sitting inside a classroom with a handful of others, sad.
I hung up the phone and I started paying attention. I realized that the PTA was encouraging an exclusionist culture based on social hierarchy. The kids who had parents who could afford to fund the PTA’s wishes were rewarded with lavish parties and prizes, while the kids who didn’t were left in the dust. It was making the kids mean and competitive about things they shouldn’t be competitive about. It was encouraging a “me” culture and it was ugly how the students (including my own) felt entitled to receive something instead of personal satisfaction. It made me mad that no one was helping the students who really needed help. It made me mad that, like in high school, nobody fucks with The Plastics.
I won’t bore you with the details of how I spent the rest of the year fucking with The Plastics, nor will I lie and say it ended well for me—it mostly ended with me drinking an extra glass of champagne (see above). The president pulled my hair on the school playground during an argument in the pick-up line (no lie), and I may or may not have considered keying her car when I realized that she drove an SUV with eyelashes on the headlights. When you become a pariah at an educational institution for bucking the system, it doesn’t bode well for your own kids, but I’ve already decided that my kids aren’t attending school there next year. We’re attending another neighborhood school that isn’t ranked as highly, and frankly, that’s okay.
My run-ins with the PTA made me realize that there’s more to school that STEM and Common Core and raising thousands of dollars towards state of the art playgrounds. Maybe what we’re missing as a society is teaching our children that they’re not entitled to anything in this world. That giving is more important than receiving. That it’s okay to work hard to reach your own potential, but if you have a little extra, you should help the guy next to you, too. The world is cut-throat soon enough. When these little humans are under ten, we need to teach them the basic values of hard work, kindness, and giving back while we are making sure that they ALL feel loved and safe and happy. I wish I could have Cady Heron’d my Regina George. But, maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe I learned a little about myself and about what it will take to raise successful children into adulthood in today’s world. I’ve decided in the future I’ll ditch the PTA and focus on that task. A little part of me believes the HBIC will get what’s coming to her anyway. You can’t drive an SUV with eyelashes and not.