Before I went to my first-ever PTO meeting, I worked myself into a state of foreboding, the intensity of which I hadn't felt since seventh grade, when I was faced with my first gym class shower. In both instances, my anxiety was really a fear of being exposed. As a 12-year-old, I'd heard that the gym teacher marched about the locker room, whipping open shower curtains to catch the girls faking good hygiene by standing fully dressed next to the spray. Clothes on or off, I figured, I couldn't win.
As a PTO parent, I was again afraid someone would whip back the curtain, figuratively this time, and reveal me as a fraud. The extent of my knowledge of school-parent groups was the 1970s song "Harper Valley PTA" and subsequent made-for-television movie starring Barbara Eden. What business did a know-nothing like me have joining the group?
Both sets of fears were fed by misinformation and self-doubt. It turned out that the gym teacher let us shower (or not) in peace. And the PTO didn't hold back my membership pending a review of my resume and portfolio. A beating heart suited them just fine.
I was reminded of this last month when I went to the inaugural meeting of our new elementary school's PTO. Ours is one of two new K-3 schools in our district and, for reasons I can't fathom, parents in the other school are more involved in their PTO than we are. Their PTO had two- and three-way races for officer positions. We felt lucky to fill our board. They had 130 parents turn out for their first meeting. We had 36. If interest in the PTO were water, their PTO would be a lake; ours would be a puddle. I wondered how long it would be before our PTO dried up completely.
But after seeing our PTO board in action, I'm expecting a flood. Especially if, as it was for me, it's misinformation and self-doubt that's been keeping parents away. I began to sense that things might change for us when I walked up to the school that first evening and noticed a well-dressed woman standing alone in the warm drizzle. Who'd they sucker into greeting people? I wondered. When I got closer, I saw it was the PTO president. More surprising, she seemed genuinely happy to be there. "We're right up the stairs in the media center. Just follow the balloons," she said brightly. Balloons? Bunches of helium balloons had been strategically placed on the banister, just past the brand-new PTO bulletin board in the lobby and just before the PTO fundraiser display in the media center.
Inside, the PTO secretary signed me in and handed me a two-pocket folder containing, among other things, the evening's agenda and an explanation of parliamentary procedure. Later, the president, Laura, told us she didn't know a motion from a second when she went to her first PTO meeting and wanted to spare others the same confusion. But then she confessed her belief that it's more important for parents to participate in their children's school lives than it is for them to show up for meetings. With that in mind, the PTO launched a website listing volunteer opportunities, upcoming events and, of course, wrap-ups of those meetings that so few of us attend.
As someone new to the community as well as to the PTO, Laura understands the alienation of being on the outside. "I know what it's like to feel you're not part of the group," she says. When she volunteered to head up the new PTO (yes, she was the only one to run for the position), she set out, with the other board members, to make the group accessible and familiar.
Dare I say it? The new board has thrown open the curtain on the PTO. I have a feeling it won't be long before more parents come spilling in.