Survivor: Navigating the Shark Infested Waters of the PTO

When we first moved to Barrington, and my daughter Katie was in elementary school, I felt compelled to join the PTO.  I couldn’t just join a committee. No, I had to volunteer the fill the one spot no one seemed to want. The President was moving out of town, and someone needed to step in. I knew from past experience that I was really organized, dare I say, compulsive. I figured this would be a marvelous way to get to know people.  I didn’t wonder, as I probably should have, why not one other parent of the three hundred or so children in the school was willing to step forward and do the job.  My ex-husband used to claim that I have rose colored glasses on half the time, and that I envision life as endless scenes out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  Totally true, by the way. I have tended to be an optimist, even without medication.

Be that as it may, after many years of post-traumatic stress disorder, therapy and recuperative margaritas, I offer the following lessons learned in serving on a Parent Teacher Organization.

Never let anyone mislead you into thinking a PTO is about teamwork and parents working together in cooperation and camaraderie.  There are teams, all right. Two of them. But no one will tell you who’s on which one. In fact, you won’t be on either when you join. You’ll just be alone. Treading water in a vast ocean of smiling sharks wearing Lily Pulitzer, a brand into which you will never again fit.

If you think you have the authority to make a decision, you don’t. You should have checked with at least three other people, who will all disagree with you.  If you think you should check with other people, you will be told that you really need to make that decision on your own and it should have been four days ago. You can’t win this one.

There is another language spoken in PTO’s. Some examples are: “Oh, you’re so efficient! You already brought an agenda!” What she really means is: “You conniving bitch, why didn’t you ask me what I wanted to talk about before doing this behind my back?”

She says, “Oh, that’s the sweetest idea!” What she means is, “Puh-lease, as if I’m going to waste my time. Go ahead if you can find a couple of people dumb enough to help you.”

She says, “What a darling sweater.” She means, “Ew. What Salvation Army rack did you get that off of? Please don’t get anywhere near me – my cashmere might get your cotton fibers on it and give me hives.”

I introduced a foreign language program into the school, during enrichment mornings. Women I will never forget stood up at a PTO meeting and complained that I hadn’t thought it through, I hadn’t asked permission, and that I should be tarred, feathered and forced to go drown myself in the murky waters of the Narragansett Bay. No, not really. No feathers were involved. Soon after, those same women enrolled their little darlings in French in time for their next summer trip to the Côte d’Azur.

The PTO took a confident, cultured and very worldly woman (moi) and turned her into a sniveling milquetoast with the self-esteem of a turd.

Thank people for everything. Send thank you letters. I didn’t know I should do this and managed to alienate twenty-eight women in less than a week. It’s not the same if you throw them a party (which I did) and spend days preparing and hundreds of dollars on flowers and food and wine and a big white tent in the gardens. If you don’t send them a little note on cute stationery, you’re toast. I was toast.

It took me years to get over it. Not because anyone apologized for treating me like shit. Just because I got old enough to stop giving a shit myself. Thank you, Barrington.

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