Written by Debra Monroe
One long-ago day my mother took cupcakes to school wearing a pale yellow coat — not warm enough for the winter day, but she wanted to look nice. A classmate admired her. I was a little proud. I hoped to impress this classmate, or anyone. My dad was an alcoholic. A friend with a similar childhood calls it “impoverished.” I lacked currency: cash or social sway.
Thanks to student loans, I went to college. More improbably, I got a Ph.D. I took a job teaching at what was then a small state university in Texas. I was broke as I paid back loans. I stayed broke as I saved to adopt. When my daughter arrived, I had a modest income and the illusion of poise — more than a lot of people, and I knew it.
I lived in a village miles from the university because housing was cheaper. By the time my daughter started school, the village was turning into an Austin exurb, with people moving in after the high-tech boom. A flier came home, asking parents to volunteer because we would be helping all students. I signed up. Parents who worked for an hourly wage and chose between volunteering or earning money were unrepresented. Parents who lived in big, new houses ran the show.
Volunteering meant parties, I discovered. It meant “let them eat chocolate-mousse cake.”
No one actually said that. But one volunteer insisted on chocolate-mousse cake for Valentine’s Day, even as another argued it was too unfamiliar for third-graders. At the celebration, a boy who lived in a rundown house a few miles from me said he had been excited all week about cake. His face fell when he tasted it. “Gunk in the middle,” he said.
Another volunteer set the price for a Christmas gift exchange at $25. Too high, I said. She said to spend what I could. “I can afford $25,” I said, “but some people can’t.” She smiled. “No one but you is objecting.” On the day of the party, she was gone. A widow raising a grandchild had worried that some kids would show up without gifts and feel bad, so she had bought eight spares. They were necessary, and we remaining volunteers ponied up.
Then I married and moved to Austin proper. My salary is good. My husband’s is better. But this life is so new, so stroke-of-luck, I sometimes dream I’m moving back into one of the grim apartments I rented as a student. Then I wake up in my good neighborhood, its school district drawn in an amoeba shape for diversity’s sake. A second effect is the polarized student body: students from the poorest neighborhoods, students from the richest.
When a volunteer for a middle-school party wondered what food to serve, I suggested pizza. She said: “The kids want nice food. Spring rolls?” Another mentioned sushi. “My son loves it.” The first said, “My kids don’t.” No sushi for sixth grade then. Instead, spring rolls.
A girl who was homeless — couch-surfing with her mother — spent the night with us so she could attend this party. She arrived with a too-big dress with a broken zipper. I hand-sewed her into it and snipped out stitches at the end of the night. She looked at me with wallflower timidity. She was hungry, she said. The party food was “weird.” I fed her.
When my daughter started high school, I hoped students would plan their own events and that the dynamic that makes public school democratic — a place to confront the humanity of others — would prevail. Then I received an email outlining fees for girls who made cheerleading: $2,250. My daughter made the squad. So did her friend, whose mother requested a payment plan. No dice, said the organizers. Use a credit card. A payment plan would delay the order: multiple top-of-the-line uniforms per girl. I paid up, my emotions as divided as the student body. I felt happy for my daughter, yet guilty, complicit, thinking of girls who can’t afford to succeed.
A childless friend said to me: “You need to give that committee an earful.” Yet my daughter asked me not to object, not this time. She had worked hard to make cheerleading.
The problem is bigger than that. It’s an inescapable fact that extracurricular activities, which increase student investment in school, are planned by parents who have ample time and money, who sometimes lack insight into the lives of students whose parents don’t. I tried to advocate for these students. My empathy is tangible. Where exactly do you live again? a volunteer asked when I said pizza, not sushi.
I felt the condescension behind the question. I smiled while clenching my teeth — overruled, because parents who would agree with me can’t leave work.
Debra Monroe is the author of five books, most recently the memoir “On the Outskirts of Normal.”
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