Over the last week I've either been doing an important mitzvah, or I've wasted lots of time being a chump.
I spent day and night (not to mention many, many hours in previous weeks) conducting "Teacher and Staff Appreciation Days" at my son's high school.
I've been organizing and executing most everything for this annual event since 2003. That's a lot of years feeling I've been swimming against the tide like one of our local, suicidal salmon. Since Staff Appreciation was considered one of the plumb volunteer jobs when my kids attended our local public schools, I assumed when my oldest child entered the nearby Jewish high school that there, too, it would be a prominent parental activity. After all, a premier Jewish value is "ha karat ha tov," recognizing and acknowledging the good--even by those who didn't mean to perform a service. Certainly, in a private school that requires parents to donate 10 hours per year of their time, expressing gratitude for the staff's dedication would be a big draw.
Uh, no. There was no form of "thank you" to the staff from either students or parents scheduled at all. Nada, zip, nothin'. When our eldest became a junior, I couldn't stand it any more--I decided to spearhead "Staff Appreciation Days." I modeled my plan on the enthusiastic energy generated by a panoply of events at the public school, where parents made monthly lunches, sent endearing remembrances regularly, brought made-to-order lattes to teachers complete with little notes of praise. Kids at the public school washed their teachers' cars, made signs and banners filled with kudos, and on one special day each semester, every child brought his instructors a bouquet. And the smiling faculty-members deserved and loved it all.
At our local Yeshiva high school, however, there was a different mood. Much more casual. One of the entries in my son's new yearbook says it all: "You know you're at the Yeshiva when...you never spend an entire period seated in class..." The kids just get up and walk around. They debate any teacher who seeks quiet decorum, or for the kids to stop texting. Just yesterday my son was offended that his teacher had taken his cell phone overnight after being warned: "I just had it in my hand!" he protested. "It could have just been my pack of gum!" In my day, you couldn't chew gum in school, either. Of course, that was when the earth was cooling.
Given that I was the lone instigator of Staff Appreciation, I didn't set my sights as high as the efforts at the public school. My first year, I organized a noon-time car-wash, bouquets, lattes and a school-wide lunch honoring the teachers. Given that there were about 40 staffers and only 115 students in the school, I thought I could easily recruit enough fellow parents and grateful students to get the job done. I publicized the week of festivities for a month beforehand, made phone calls to all the parents soliciting volunteers, and went "begging" to local businesses to contribute foods and supplies.
Several dozen hours of my time later, the faculty eagerly pulled their cars into the school lot for cleaning. The students sat by while my employed handyman and I washed all the cars. Four mothers helped me make bouquets, but they could only stay a short while--my handyman and I finished and delivered them. I decorated the dining room and put together lunch for the school and staff; the kids grabbed their food in a free-for-all. The staff, I must say, unused to any acknowledgement, thanked me profusely.
But I was dismayed. Why were the public school kids and parents so "into" Staff Appreciation, and the parochial school kids--whose parents pay big bucks so their kids learn Jewish values--so not? I had to think this through. What was I trying to do, here, in this hostile environment?
For one thing, Staff Appreciation is enshrined in the wonderfully old-fashioned town where I live as a means of involvement for public school parents, many of whom sacrifice so the mom can stay home to raise the kids, or so they can afford this family-centric neighborhood. Not so with the Jewish school, the only Orthodox high school in the region. Also, the Jewish school is small; the public school ten times its size. There are more teachers, more impersonality, among the masses; Staff Appreciation is a means to connect. Additionally, and I hate to admit it, courtesy and order at the public school is way above the Jewish school norm. No child would just get out of his seat and leave class, as students do all the time at the Yeshiva--administrators at the public school patrol the halls, and teachers would instantly punish such insubordination.
So, why did I have the sadistic need to volunteer to do Staff Appreciation the following year, and the many since?
I redefined my purpose. Moms and dads of the public school kids modeled an eagerness to support and praise. Their children understood that education was important and serious, and that those who provide it deserve respect. The Yeshiva students who think nothing of wandering out of the room while their teacher is speaking just don't get it--they don't realize how very fortunate they are that their parents are willing to pay huge tuition so they can receive both a secular and Jewish education.
Reminds me of the tune from "Bye Bye Birdie:"
Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Kids! Who can understand anything they say?
Kids! They're disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers--
And while we're on the subject,
Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?
But that was the point--with no one going to the effort to show appreciation to the teachers, the kids didn't even have gratitude in their repertoire. I decided that my purpose was to expose these ungrateful louts to "ha karat ha tov." If it killed me.
I reduced the event down to three days--advertised for weeks with signs around the school and announcements. On the first I set up a big market umbrella trimmed with lanterns in the school foyer, and ceremoniously prepare to-order lattes, delivered during class so the kids see the pleasure on their teacher's face. (A week in advance, to increase the staff's excitement, I send them espresso order forms.) On the second day, the staff comes to school to find flower arrangements on their desks with a colorful balloon and note of appreciation. On that day, students are encouraged to bring tokens or cards of thanks as well--and a huge banner they've signed is displayed across the office. On the third day, I partition off the kids' lunchroom with Hawaiian fabric and fanciful decorations, turning that half-hall into the "Hula Bula Hut," an exclusive area where the staff comes for a specially-prepared (by me) lunch. The goal: to be conspicuous, lavish.
Over the past several years, I've been fortunate to have my dearest friend and neighbor to help out. For the years when she, too had a son in the Yeshiva, her complicity in Staff Appreciation made the exercise downright fun. One year, we went to Alki beach and collected unusual stones, one for each staffer, and painted "You Rock, Mr. ____!" on each one for personalized paperweights. She and I together developed the now infamous Hula Bula Hut, and I reuse many of her hand-made decorations. Her attitude, and our friendship, made the many hours we devoted worthwhile in themselves.
But her youngest son graduated two years ago, and while she's graciously returned to help me with particularly challenging tasks, she no longer has reason to put her time into Yeshiva chores. This year, my calls for help were answered by four moms, ones whose generosity in supporting and fundraising for the school continues all year. You probably know the syndrome--the same committed moms do almost all the work. And I completely understood when they could only give very limited time to Staff Appreciation after all they'd done throughout the year.
Back to my original thought--after seven years heading Staff Appreciation, what do I have? Are the kids any more likely to express gratitude to their teachers? To anyone? Am I any more likely to have parent support in my time-soaking endeavor? Are the teachers going to feel better?
The answers: no, no and yes. When I hear the staff tell me they look forward to these days all year long--that it gets them through moments when they want to throw a textbook at a kid--I don't mind all the frustration so much. The staff tells me "thank you," and I say it back to them. For I personally am truly grateful that they take my disrespectful oaf and try their best to put some information into his noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy little brain. So "thank you" to all the teachers I ever had, and ever knew, and ever will know. And who knows, maybe some year one of the girls who saw me tacking up signs all over campus will be the mom who can't stop herself from leading Staff Appreciation at her own child's school.