I have one golden rule for volunteering: I will only do what I love. I am on the board of the kids’ playschool. I volunteer in the community. I volunteer a fair bit at the kids’ elementary school. And in each of those arenas, I have only ever taken on what I felt I could truly enjoy or do in my own way and in my own time.
A few years ago, I was asked to help out with the reading intervention programme at my kids’ elementary school, a programme in which parents volunteer to work on reading each morning with a child who is falling behind. I did not hesitate for a second when I said, “No.” I’m sure that the principal was very surprised by my response. I have three avid book lovers for kids; I have a Ph.D in literature; I taught adult literacy in Canada, and EFL in Japan, before getting my Ph.D.; and I am the biggest bibliophile on the block. But I knew that I would not be a good fit for the job of working through the dreary leveled readers. (I’m also trained in teaching through phonics, not whole language, but that’s a debate for another day!) I do not want to struggle with the mechanics of reading without the payoff of great stories. I love books, but I do not have the gift of coaxing children into doing something they do not want to do or cheering them on through their struggles. I didn’t even teach my own children to read. Sure, I did a bit of work on sounding words out with them, when they seemed ready and interested. But I was not heavily involved with the mechanics of their learning to read. What I did, and did well and did willingly and with my whole heart, was to read aloud to them every night from books that we both found appealing (they vetoed The Wombles, I refused ever to read anything with a superhero). They learned first a passion for story, then they learned to read. To have the element of great literature removed from the equation of teaching a child to read just had no appeal for me. So I said a firm, if slightly sad, “No.” (It really did take being firm with myself not to give in to the appeal for what is undoubtedly a huge benefit to a struggling child. It pushed every guilt button in my psyche. But I still said, “No.”)
Instead, I do what I love to do. At the school this year, among other things, I organized the annual book sale, I chaired the planning committee for the graduation party, and I was the co-ordinator for the classroom parent representatives. Each of these jobs gives value to the staff and students at the school, but they also each speak to things I love: sorting the thousands of donated books–Bring it on!–kids’ party-planning–Yes, please!–meeting other parents and helping to improve school communication–I’m there.
When we decided on a topic for this month’s At Issue, I thought I’d be writing a very different post. I thought it would be about how I need to say “no” more often, how I resent how stay-at-home mothers often get asked to take on so much (on the assumption that they have nothing else to do!), how hard I find it to value my own volunteer efforts (“Oh, it was nothing, really.”) But as I sat down to write, I realized that this year has seen me take on more volunteer work than ever, but it has all been with deliberate care, with a willing “Yes.” Volunteering should be something that is mutually beneficial, and although there have been times when I have had just a little too much on my plate, at least it has always been something that gave me as much pleasure and reward as I gave it hard effort. The guilt about saying no is still there, but I’m saner for it.