To Serve or Not To Serve?

Sometimes, the only answer is no.

by Sharron Kahn Luttrell


It was one of the last PTO meetings of the year. We skated easily down the evening’s agenda, veering off just once or twice to explore a conversational side path before looping back to the topic at hand. The atmosphere was light. June was near, and we were allowing ourselves to feel the first tinges of relief. It had been our first year in the new school, but now it was almost over. There were a few jokes; some laughter. Then we reached the last item on the agenda and the mood turned.

There was a problem. The incoming board had several gaping holes in it. We still needed two cultural arts chairs and a secretary. A few of us shot nervous glances at each other before lowering our eyes so the president couldn’t catch our gaze. It was one of those PTO moments that people envision right before they decide to skip the meeting and stay home where it’s safe.

To many parents, a PTO that needs a volunteer is like a very large planet. Get too close and you’ll be caught in its gravitational pull. I hooked my feet around the legs of my chair and hung on tight while mentally calling up my schedule for the next year. There didn’t seem to be room in it for a board position unless I was willing to type up meeting minutes at 2 a.m. or sacrifice Desperate Housewives to preview demo tapes of “The Merry Mathematician.” In theory I could do it. In practice, I would probably alienate both the PTO and my family if I tried to squeeze a board position into my life.

I kept quiet while a few people asked about the responsibilities of each role. That’s when I noticed the look on Meredith’s face. Meredith is the mother of a girl in my son’s first-grade class and relatively new to the PTO. She was fidgeting in her chair as if locked in a soundless battle with her conscience. I could tell she was considering one of the vacancies.

Meredith would be a creative and tireless member of the PTO board. But she has three kids under age 7 and a husband who travels more than he’s home. Because her family lives out of district, she packs all three kids into her car twice a day to transport her oldest across town lines to and from school. She’s a Brownie leader. She keeps chickens. She runs a photography business. She does not have time to be an effective, contributing member of the PTO board.

Yet she hasn’t been around parent groups very long and therefore hasn’t learned to tame her enthusiasm for diving into any project that has to do with her children, regardless of the personal cost. Meredith was in extreme danger of crashing into Planet PTO.

To my relief, she decided to go home and think it over. The next morning when she returned from delivering her oldest to school and had herded the other two kids back into the house, and was cleaning up the baby’s latest act of destruction while clearing away the fallout from breakfast, and preparing a craft for her daughter’s class, she paused to give thanks that she didn’t pipe up the night before. “Maybe in two years when the middle one’s in first grade,” she told me.

Nobody in our parent group would begrudge Meredith for knowing her own limits. They’ve all been there, too. Hopefully she will join the board in two years when the children are older. But until then, Meredith will be taking care of matters on her own planet.

Sharon Kahn Luttrel volunteers for parent groups at two schools in Mendon, Mass.

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