This is a true story. The movie, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is brilliant fiction, but occasionally real-life imitates the movies. In this instance, it certainly did. My experience co-chairing the Willows School Auction introduced me to one mom who could have been a character in that memorable movie.
This is a cautionary tale about what happened when I dedicated six months of my life to volunteering at my kids’ school under the false assumption that hard work and professionalism would be valued. As you may have begun to suspect, this experience didn’t end well. Let’s just say I’d much rather know the head of the school parent association (and school board member) hates me before she sends an email to everyone calling me every vile name in the book.
It all started—or should I say—ended one evening in March at precisely 6:00 p.m. The summer before, I was asked by the parent association to co-chair our school’s largest annual fundraiser, the school auction. I agreed and began work almost immediately.
For many months, I spent about five hours or more a day planning the event. I felt like I was back at my full time job as vice president at a big public relations firm. Meetings, letter writing, soliciting pricey auction items, financial targets that needed to be met, reports to the board of directors, memos, more meetings. Most of the time I had the job of moving us toward specific goals while the parent association moms used the meetings as therapy sessions to discuss their inadequate husbands and issues with their kids, or lashing out at other moms—mostly the ones who (a) cared about their appearances and (b) had a life. But, I rationalized it by reminding myself that it was for a great cause: my kids’ school.
Fortunately, my auction co-chairs and our volunteers were amazing to work with. The event went well. It raised more than $200,000, an all-time record for our school. There were a few “minor” glitches. One memorable screw-up happened when party planner to the stars, Mindy Weiss, one of my auction co-chairs, had to make an emergency dash to In N Out Burger because the parent volunteer who catered the event was unable to feed a much larger than expected crowd. But, we carried on, drinking, bidding generously and having a grand ol’ time.
After the event, I was exhausted. Not suspecting anything seriously amiss, there was follow-up work to be done and I dragged myself back to the school to help supervise the event clean up. (Note to self: When the second parent association co-chair temporarily refuses to give you the box for the diamond earrings your husband bought you at auction, realize they hate you).
Then, three days after the event, the email hit my in box at home like one of the U.S. missiles into Tripoli. It was the draft of the official “thank-you” to all the auction co-chairs from the two moms who ran the parent association. They had glowing and kind things to say about everyone on the committee, except for me. Under my name they had written the most hurtful, insulting, unprofessional words I’ve ever heard in a professional capacity. Here’s an excerpt:
“Christina is arrogant, aggressive, and difficult to work with, with a true Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality…” Oh, they did throw me a bone, saying I was “skilled at soliciting auction donations.”
I froze. I felt like someone had slapped me across the face. Hard. Really hard. I couldn’t believe this was the thank you I was getting from the school’s parent association. I was embarrassed and furious. My tears flowed for days.
I was stunned because during the entire time I worked with this mom, we’d never even exchanged harsh words. We’d been cordial and friendly with each other. I had no idea how much she despised me.
But, I should have known. At the time, this mom was mid-50s, gray haired, granny-ish frumpster with three kids, including a set of twins in kindergarten. Her husband, she’d gripe, was useless with the kids. He was even older than she was. She’d complain constantly about the difficulties she faced raising her three kids. She complained she was often mistaken for her kids’ grandmother. She wore a neck brace for a period of time. Money was not the issue for this family, but they sure had other problems. I always listened and tried to be sympathetic, but I just couldn’t relate to her situation. Luckily.
The evil email was intended for the other co-chair of the parent association and not the entire auction committee, which included me (and to which it was sent). Was I perfect to work with? No! When I’m working, I make decisions and keep moving. Doing “face time” in the parent lounge just wasn’t my style. Did I deserve this meanness? No!
A few weeks after the incident, she emailed me (yes, emailed me) a lame “apology” blaming me for the episode.
After the email debacle, I don’t think I set foot on campus for many months. I felt unwelcome and in some ways, I still do. It set the tone for my volunteerism at the school, which has never again involved anything having to do with the parent association.
So, what’s the lesson learned? When you encounter a menopausal, unhappy, bitter, frumpy, overwhelmed mom, run for your life. Don’t listen to her. Don’t try to be nice. Don’t gently suggest she color her hair. Don’t pretend like you have anything in common just because your kids are at the same school. Don’t hold the auction photo shoot at your home and invite her in. Act like a “Real Housewife Of New Jersey.” Hop in your minivan (or in this case, hers) and step on the gas pedal. Drive until you run out of gas. Make up some lame excuse as to why you can’t volunteer anymore and spare yourself the risk of having your reputation sullied by an “email illiterate” as she described her self in her “apology” to me. Trust me on this one. Oh, and tell Facebook to stop suggesting her as a “friend”.
16 thoughts to “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: When School Volunteering Goes Wrong…Very Wrong”
Yikes! What an awful experience, Christina! I can't even imagine having put so much effort into something only to feel so unappreciated. It seems that any time you work on a committee you end up embroiled in some "politics"…but this sounds beyond the pale.
This is so amazing I don't even know how to comment! Wow
Firstly, congratulations! It sounds like you did an amazing job. $200,000 is no small feat! There is no denying you rocked the challenge you were given.
I'm so sorry you were treated so disrespectfully though. Just know in your heart you did your best and chalk this up as a case of plain, old, jealous mean-girling. Chin up love and walk on that campus with pride 🙂
this doesn't reflect well on you, your adversary, or the school.
Ugh! How awful! I'm sorry that you had to go through this; but it could be worse, you could be her! ;).
You rock that place and don't let it get you down!
Beyond the degree to which this essay reveals your startling lack of perception into how others see you, this post is petty, mean-spirited, and more suited to a note a middle schooler might pass in class than to the public arena. You were inadvertently copied with a private email not intended for you. Grow up and deal with it. Obviously, people have things to say about you they can't or won't say to your face, a far more relevant issue to be thinking about than how wronged you were by what they said.
I know you must feel terribly abused because your self-attested superior organizational skills were not celebrated to the degree you–in your obviously overblown sense of victimized self–felt they should have been, but seriously, get over yourself. I've volunteered at non-profits for 25 years. You do it to help others, not to seek self-affirmation. When I run into people like you, whose poor self-esteem seems to require constant nurturing, I run for the hills. This woman seems to have swallowed her dislike of you and treated you with civility, putting the good of the school above her own feelings. Sounds pretty grown-up to me.
If you don't like what someone says about you in private communications, address it with them directly, like an adult. To impugn their husband, marriage, children, and physical appearance in public is the response of a cruel child.
Dear Anon 10:45. I really hit a nerve with you! Care to use your real name rather than hide behind anon?
This is a very witty and I'm sure slightly hyperbolic account of a startling incident.
I am a school administrator who loves your blog. One of the main reasons why I read it is because it sticks to the facts and gives helpful info and insight. I am a little saddened that this piece resulted in name calling and finger pointing. Yes she was wrong, but you can't call out people at your kids current school. Not a good message to send. Sorry for your bad experience. Keep volunteering. We need dedicated parents like you in our Independent Schools:)
I'm sorry this happened. I found your blog when going through the private school admissions gauntlet for my son, and I have appreciated your take on how to stay sane during the whole process.
As a mom of older kids, can I offer some take it or leave it advice? Rise above. Take down the post, apologize for any bad feelings, and rise above. You strike me as a very with it, organized, and smart person. Smart enough to realize that the only person who comes off badly in this post is you. I don't know you — my kids go to school in the San Gabriel Valley — but I know you will rethink keeping this post up on your business blog. I learned early, while my kids were in nursery school and I chaired the annual fundraiser, stay away from fundraisers! Volunteer for field trips, help out in the class, bring baked goods to the bake sale, donate to the annual fund…but stay away from the big committee events!
With respect, –Erica
Dear Erica, thank you for reading the blog! I hear what you're saying, but this blog is about admissions and life at private elementary schools: the good, the bad and the ugly. This post would fall under the "ugly" category. I'm not concerned about how I come across or whether some readers think I appear unlikable. I couldn't write the blog if I were, trust me. I'm definitely not always likeable and I'm the first to say it. My humble opinion is that when you co-chair an event that raises $200K and donate personal funds of about $20K, this should not happen. But, it did. I'm being honest in sharing my feelings with readers about this incident that happened to me at my kids' school several years ago. I waited years to write about this and omitted a number of other details. I did not use this woman's name. She knows who she is. Your advice about staying away from fundraisers is the BEST advice I've heard in a very long time! Cheers to that!
I hear you, and you have a good attitude about it! Wishing you all the best!
There is no excuse for this woman to misuse her official authority the way she did. I hope the school handled this appropriately.
I avoided the high profile volunteer jobs at our school (I had been warned!) and instead chose to work in the library. It was safe in there 🙂
OK Christina, I’m sorry you went through this, but your writing is hilarious! Kudos to you that you can turn unpleasant events into interesting reads. Glad you guys are happy at the new school!
Thanks for reading. It took a while for me to find humor in the situation… I really think the piece is a commentary about that mom and the school, more than anything else:)–Christina