My career as cultural arts committee chairman of the local PTA is over, and the verdict is in: I am Definitely Odd.
When I took the job last spring, my predecessor assured me it wasn't a huge task once you knew the ropes; basically, it consisted of lining up various performances for school assemblies. I thought: How hard can it be?--and the answer was, harder than it looks, but still eminently do-able. In theory. In reality, that question--how hard can it be?--is one which in my experience has always, always been a prelude to disaster. When it comes to this question, I have learned from my mistakes, and can repeat them exactly. That was my first mistake. My second mistake was thinking: I can do this pretty much by e-mail and phone, and I won't have to go to PTA meetings.
I hate meetings. My idea of a properly run meeting is the kind Ben Bradlee used to hold at the Washington Post. News meetings at the Post were held in a room that could accommodate, at most, about 20 people, and it lasted 20 minutes, max. You were expected to show up with your game on; there was intense competition to have your section's stories in the paper, as prominently displayed as possible. But there were also deadlines, and a paper to put out. To keep things moving and on track, Bradlee had this little device--a joke shop toy, I think it was--that made machine-gun noises. When somebody said something dumb or irrelevant or just started droning on too long, he'd point it at the offender--RAT-A-TAT-TAT-TAT--and, in a manner of speaking, kill him off then and there. It was hilarious--provided, of course, you weren't the victim. For that very reason, Bradlee didn't have to use his little machine gun all that much. A whole lot of work got done in those brief meetings, day after day.
This, I have slowly come to realize, is not the way most people think of meetings. There are a whole lot of people in the world for whom meetings are a kind of social life; there are bureaucracies in which the whole purpose of showing up for work seems to be to Have a Meeting. People have meetings to plan meetings; some people spend so much time complaining about having no time for meetings that they could have had four meetings in the time it took them to complain. Much of the time, meetings are like paperwork: the process of getting work done somehow becomes the work itself. Most people either don't notice this, or they find ways to cope (my husband takes laptops to meetings, and gets work done in the back of the room). But I do notice, and I seem to be totally lacking in coping skills. Being cooped up in a meeting that drags on too long is, for me, about as thrilling as growing dental plaque. Honest to God, I would rather poke a sharp stick in my eye. At least then the pain would be a distraction.
Obviously, not all meetings are the horrors I describe. I go to monthly meetings of an environmental group at my church without complaint, and, obviously, monthly PTA meetings need to happen. But on general principles, I try to avoid meetings, even routine PTA meetings. When it came to running the cultural arts committee, my plan was: a) find out what I, personally, was supposed to do; b) do it; c) report back. This way, I thought, I could avoid the slightest chance of getting stuck in a room with people whose concept of meetings was different from mine--and, given that mine is a decidedly minority view, this seemed fairly likely.
People like me should never, ever volunteer for the PTA.
Because what happened--you could see this coming, I'm sure--was a Tragic Miscommunication. Basically, I was told at the beginning of the year that the PTA didn't have any money for cultural arts, that the budget had been depleted by a big equipment purchase for the school the year before, and that for the time being I needed to work on getting some grant money. So I did, and then....the PTA got some money....and then (yes, I know this sounds weird), somehow, I never found out about it. How, you ask, is it possible that the cultural arts committee chairman never found out about the thousands of dollars she had to spent on cultural arts? Simple: a) nobody told me and b) I didn't go to PTA meetings. My only defense here is that everybody was on notice about my aversion to meetings, and there's nothing wrong with my phone or e-mail. I mean, I let people know what I was doing. And I knew money was coming in--the usual fund-raisers and stuff--but I figured that there were priorities, and that when Cultural Arts got some money, somebody would tell me. This is what's known as a Fatally Flawed Assumption. (Remember the old saying? "Never ASSUME. It makes an ASS of U and ME.")
Meanwhile, October, November, December were passing, and unbeknownst to me (busily working on grant proposals in my office at home) I am getting a rep as a Major Slacker. And then this week, everything finally comes to light, and somebody else leaps in to line up some acts for the rest of the year (from a list of potential acts I'd drawn up last August), and I offered to resign, and they took me up on it. And I am delighted, actually, because this was a job I am not suited for, and somebody else could do better.
But the fallout here is that in the Momworld that is an elementary school PTA, I now have a rep. Exactly what it is I'm not sure, but I am pretty sure that it's not as a team player, or as the exemplar of what a committee chair should be. With the facts people have at their disposal--and, really, it's not worth it to explain all this in detail, because the bottom line is, what needed to be done got done--I am pretty sure that people's impression of me is going to be that I am just, you know, somehow...not right. Which, believe me, is truer than they realize--I have the hospital records to prove it--but it's not true in exactly the way they are thinking. And of all the not-nice names people could conceivably call me, "slacker" is not one that would really stick.
Anyway, yesterday I took a bunch of papers over to the school to drop off so the PTA president could hand it over to whoever gets the job now. I was planning to stick it in the PTA mailbox, but when I got out of the car I saw one of the co-presidents getting out of hers, so I said, "Hey, can I just leave this with you?" And we chatted for a moment, and she said how unfortunate it was that I wasn't going to be cultural arts committee chairman anymore, and I was trying to think of a way to say how happy this very fact made me, all the while thinking that this lady was giving me a strange sort of sideways look. And so that's when I looked down and realized that I had my husband's jacket on, and that it was inside out.
Yup. Definitely odd.