Our first PTO meeting of the year lasted only an hour, but when it was over my head felt like one of those overstuffed fundraising envelopes the kids bring home the first week of school. One agenda item I’ve been thinking about was the school nurse’s request for money for snacks and emergency socks and underwear. When I was a kid, I’d pretend I was sick so I could go to the school nurse. Had I known I could have shown up at her door whenever I stepped in a puddle or my stomach growled, I would have spent a lot more time in her office.

It’s too late for me now, but it made me realize that I could’ve gotten a lot more out of my school years if I’d sneaked into a few PTO meetings and learned something about the partnership between parents and schools. If I had done that, here’s what else I would have found out:

  • The nurse buys off-brand, plain white socks and undies at discount department stores. I suspect she’d have more takers if she asked for a few more bucks so she could splurge. Had the nurse at my elementary school offered us striped socks and Snoopy underwear, we would have swallowed our pride and confessed to our accidents.
  • PTOs give teachers money for extras that make classroom learning more exciting—like incubators to hatch chicks and blank journals that the kids turn into storybooks. If it’s that easy for a teacher to get cash for things like that, I would have wondered, how hard could it be to wrangle a few bucks for something really good-like a pony? Of course, the teacher would have to frame the request, say by calling it a raise-your-own-pony project. But I definitely could’ve talked my 3rd grade teacher into that. She was a pushover.
  • Not every family can afford to pay for field trips or books. I grew up in a middle-class community and thought poverty was neatly contained in the inner city. I never suspected that it seeped into my world. I would have been shocked to learn that it does and glad to know that in its quiet way, the PTO makes sure every child brings home something from the book fair and gets a seat on the bus for field trips.
  • The PTO chooses the fundraisers. Every year, we unquestioningly peddled the same old gift wrap and greeting cards. Had we known there was a choice, we could have petitioned the PTO to let the kids select the merchandise. We would have gone with the company that dealt exclusively in candy necklaces and Hot Wheels cars.
  • Parents spend a lot of time doing things they don’t have to do. Even into high school, I thought events simply happened, as if the night before the spring carnival, a cloud floated by and rained cotton candy machines and dunk tanks. It never occurred to me that just about everything fun connected with school is the result of hours of planning, coordinating, and schlepping. I wouldn’t have taken these things for granted if I had understood how much work was put into them.

Oh, well. Such is the blessing and the curse of growing older. Age brings wisdom and hindsight, and with that a dose of regret for missed opportunities. But I am making sure my kids are aware of everything their PTOs do for them. Believe it or not, they haven’t tried to pull strings or work the system. Though I can't guarantee they won’t wish they did when they get to be my age.

Sharron Kahn Luttrell volunteers for parent groups at two schools in Mendon, Mass.