One of the best parts of being a dad in public is the generalized expectation that you are basically a greased-up Kevin James playing banana-cream-pie Jenga with the Queen Mum. Remember those early solo outings with your baby and the generously low bar that you were held to? Doors held open, the fawning looks from the delighted people in your fancy grocery store as you—a MAN, for Chrissakes, nobly taking time out of his busy man-schedule to “give Mom a break”—strode through the produce aisle, your baby slung from your torso in an Ergo made of gilded copies of the Equal Rights Amendment? The rest of society loved you for the simple act of showing up, and the experience validated everything you’ve ever wanted to believe about yourself as a father, which is that you are a shining beacon of gender-role progressivism for not abandoning your child in the beer fridge.
Volunteering in your kid’s classroom is sort of like that. Without fail, the teacher will tell you that “the kids love it when dads come in,” or “it’s a special treat,” or something to that effect. I have no idea if this is true. It’s possible there are dads in there every day of every year—nothing but dads, just a separate storage closet filled with fresh dad volunteers ready to unfold and deploy when the old one wears out—but they will tell you this anyway. And it kicks the door wide open for you to consider yourself a veritable superhero because you made a cameo at the place where your kid spends hours upon hours every day. It feels great!
(I’m not sure exactly what they tell you if you’re a mom volunteer, but I’m fairly certain that you will not enjoy the luxury of adequacy. I mean, you will, only “adequacy” in your case requires full knowledge of the day’s schedule, detailed plans for an original art project using your own sustainably grown balsa wood, EMT certification, and a batch of individually monogrammed gluten-free cupcakes.)
In any event, the teachers will (rightly, it turns out) expect that you (Dad) know nothing about the classroom or the day’s schedule, and that you possibly have never even considered that your child attends a school of any kind, beyond the fact that sometimes they go in a building for a while and come back alive. If you manage to get through a day in the classroom without causing the facility to lose its operating license, you will be hailed as a monumental success. Go ahead and embrace the soft bigotry of low dad expectations while you can, because there are still a few opportunities for you to fail. First and foremost among them:
Master Snack Duty
Were you supposed to bring the snacks? Are they from the approved classroom snack list? Did you accidentally throw out the list or lose it in a pile of art projects or rolling papers? Snack Duty will pretty much make or break your reputation as a competent parent. You do not want to be the cause of a roomful of irritable, snackless children, nor do you want to be the monster behind little Sladetron’s anaphylactic shock, so be sure to have the snacks on lockdown.
If you did in fact lose the official snack list and are too embarrassed or procrastination-oriented or drunk to ask for a copy before you get to school, here is a general overview: Snacks typically consist of one fruit and one carbohydrate. Avoid anything with hydrogenated fats and oils. Frosting is not an acceptable carbohydrate. A stick of butter is not a carbohydrate at all. Grapes are choking hazards. Do not bring grapes. Cherry tomatoes are technically fruits, so those are okay. Except cherry tomatoes are choking hazards. Do not bring cherry tomatoes. Hot dogs are also choking hazards. Also, hot dogs are not fruit, so that’s two reasons not to bring hot dogs. Do not bring raisins. Raisins are just old grapes. Raisins are not fooling anyone.
If you brought fruit that requires slicing or peeling, do not slice or peel that fruit until you are in the classroom, so as to avoid serving apples with a side of listeriosis. Observe well-known allergy restrictions. Do not serve nuts or shrimp. Do not bring soft cheeses. Do not serve straws and a 40-pound sack of wheat gluten. If you’re still reading this, go ahead and abandon hope. Take your broken spirit to the store and get some bananas, popcorn, and apple juice for the kids, and a sleeve of cookie dough for the ride over. You deserve it! You’re a volunteer!
Sniff Out The Punks
Volunteering in the classroom is your big chance to rate each student as a potential friend for your kid without parents in there keeping shitty attitudes at bay with the the promise of ice cream. You’ll find out pretty quickly which kid is the Bossy One, the Hyper One, the Perpetually Crying One, the Clearly Has An Older Sibling Because He Knows Slang Terms For Genitalia One. The point is that within a couple of hours, you should be able to label each child as if you were a 1964 newspaperman covering the Beatles.
Of course, any time you are dealing with other people’s children, you should immediately tap into whatever reservoir of patience you possess. Luckily, as the classroom volunteer, you are not required to teach them anything, nor are you required (or probably allowed) to discipline them in any way. Let the professionals handle the tough stuff and just focus on keeping the kids safe from, like, panther attacks. Avoid excessive hamming, and keep the conversation light.
Kid: “I have a brown kitty.”
You: “That’s nice. What’s your kitty’s name?”
Kid: “I have a brown kitty.”
You: “Do you know what jet fuel can’t melt?”
After a while, you might even discover a few nice kids that know how to share, or that look like they might own a trampoline.
Follow Along With the Activities
Surely at this stage in your parenting career, you understand that attention spans are pretty wee in young children, and the schedule will reflect this. Stay sharp. Often there is some sort of color-coded Activity Board that will keep you abreast of the day’s activities, and you’ll want to check in with the board early and often. (Blue means you will be painting. Red means you will be going to the playground. Green means music. Brown also means music. Yellow means crafts. Other times yellow means survival skills. Orange means they were unable to find blue. In many cultures, white signifies death; for you, it means story time. Pink means they washed the white one and the red one together, and the red one bled. Purple means you should evacuate due to dangerous levels of radon. Etc.)
Ideally, you would anticipate the next activity and help smooth the transition between them, but we’re aiming a bit lower than that here, so on second thought, just ignore the board and politely follow the teacher around until you’re given a specific task out of pity.
Don’t Screw Up Pickup/Dismissal
If you’re sticking around to help with dismissal, you will need to confirm that the person picking up each child is in fact authorized to do so. Aside from Snack Duty, this is the worst possible thing you can screw up. This will feel like a live-action setup of the world’s most consequential LSAT question. So let’s practice: On Tuesdays, Crookedrain may go home with Linzibel’s parents. Xanthangum’s parents may pick up Aybellina on Mondays, but not on Wednesdays. They may not pick up Middlemarch on any day. Fridays are like Mondays for everyone except Honourhawk, who may not go home with Thurstonmoore on that day. Thursdays are Free Days, where anyone may go home with anyone else. Alex has no parents. They died. Thursday is his favorite day. :-(
If you screw up Dismissal and a kid goes missing, make sure you update the Activity Board to show the color for Amber Alert Time, which is teal: the color of failure.
Try to remember that people are working here—professional people, whose job, I’m sorry to say, is far more important than the work you do slinging corporate buzzwords at a whiteboard between visits to your fantasy baseball league’s waiver wire. Your sole qualification for being here is that you made a child, which any idiot can do, and many have. Sure, in theory you’re helping, but keep in mind that you are a far less efficient version of the teacher, and that you probably also brought in death-snacks. You aren’t THAT helpful. It’s likely that this teacher is a pretty patient person in the first place (or else they wouldn’t be teaching), and this is why they have been able to withstand a morning’s worth of you in their classroom without pinching the bridge of their nose through to the very bone. Thank them for letting you hang out.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.