When I walked into my first-ever PTO meeting, I felt like I was back in high school, scanning the crowded cafeteria for a friendly face. That the meeting was in fact held in a school cafeteria may have contributed to that sensation. But so did my rising anxiety as I looked for a place to sit. Finally, I spotted an empty chair at a long table at the head of the room and started toward it. But at the last minute, I decided instead to take a seat at a table toward the back, near the door.
The meeting got under way when a woman stood up and introduced herself as the copresident. She turned toward the women seated on either side of her and introduced them in turn, telling us their names and their titles as PTO officers. The table where they were sitting, the one I had almost sat at myself, was in fact the board table.
My face glowed red as I realized how narrowly I had escaped public humiliation. It would have been worse than accidentally sitting with the popular kids.
The field of social psychology has taught us about nonverbal messages and how what we don't say can be more revealing than our words. Where we choose to sit in a room communicates just as much as a friendly hello or a growl. The person who chooses a chair near the door (that would be me) feels a little uncertain. She's never quite sure that things are going to go smoothly and likes to map out an escape route just in case. The one in the front row is attentive. She doesn't want to miss anything and probably has a few things to say herself. And the person up front facing the rest of us—the teacher, the judge, the PTO officer—holds all the power. These are the people in charge. The rest of us are there to serve.
I'm sure the presence of an authority figure up front is a useful tool in the classroom and in the courtroom, neither of which would function without order and respect. But it's entirely unnecessary at a PTO meeting. The moms and dads who show up for PTO are generally well-behaved. We're attentive; we're engaged. And while I can't vouch for everyone, I'd wager most of us have clean records. Given all that, the board table serves no other purpose than to mark a boundary between the officers and everyone else.
The members of my PTO board have always been warm and welcoming, even when they sat at the board table facing the rest of us. Maybe that's why it always felt vaguely unsettling. Sitting up there, the PTO leaders looked like a cheerful American mom version of the Soviet politburo. Yet despite that near-death-by-embarrassment experience at my first meeting, I never questioned the board table's presence. I simply accepted it as a necessary feature of PTO meetings.
But then the board table vanished. It wasn't run out of town in a popular uprising. There were no outcries to Madam President to "tear down this table." There were no peace talks or UN resolutions. The table simply faded into history when the PTO decided to move from the cafeteria to the more intimate and cozier school library. Instead of acres of long, rectangular lunch tables, there were smaller tables of various shapes and sizes. We pushed these together and everybody grabbed a seat, board member or not. The effect was liberating. The class differences disappeared. We were all equals. Finally, we all had a seat at the table.