Q. My husband and I moved to this metropolitan area two years ago to take demanding jobs and want to support the elementary and middle schools our two sons attend. Although our work doesn't leave me time to be a Brownie leader again, or let my husband coach soccer anymore, we like to volunteer because it sets a good example for our boys.
I feel unwanted at their schools, however. We have put our names on the PTA's "willing to volunteer" lists. No response. I attended PTA meetings and signed up to help with the winter bazaar, the teachers' dinner, and the counting of Box Tops for Education. Still no response.
We showed up at the "sock hop" and said, "Put us where we're needed." We were assigned to the snack table, where we arranged the juice boxes and cookies, but someone came along and said, "The president doesn't like it like that." When we followed her directions, she reluctantly said, "Well, that's a little better."
I vowed that things would improve this year and have tried harder to know the parents of our kids' friends. I introduce myself to them, so they can associate my face with my name, but they don't want to socialize. They only talk during a game or when they're waiting to pick up their kids and they've never called us.
I'm not jealous of the parents who are recognized again and again for contributing to PTA activities but why do they act like martyrs when they don't need to do all of the work themselves?
What am I doing wrong? I don't try to take over or tell people that I'm better than they are. I try to be friendly. Why won't anyone ask me to help?
Or should we give up on the schools and work at a homeless shelter instead?
A.Actually, you might have to do that, if your PTA keeps acting as cliquish as a bunch of seventh-grade girls. Unfortunately, some PTAs and community groups mistakenly choose these perpetual preteens to run their organizations and once they get in office, they do their best to stay there.
But don't give up on your PTA yet.
It's unlikely that all the members of its ruling class are control freaks. Some of them may simply not know how to delegate responsibility or they may only trust those parents whom they've known since pre-K.
You can sometimes break up a leadership clique, as you can any clique, by challenging it directly, particularly if you're backed up by the principal and maybe by a few PTA members who feel as left out as you do.
With or without their support, go to the next meeting and ask the chair publicly -- and ever so nicely -- why she only calls on some people to help and not on other willing workers. Remind her that you've often put your name down as a volunteer, but you've never been called and you are sure that there are other parents who want to help, too.
You can also point out that active PTA members not only help the school and the children but also themselves, since participation gives parents an excellent chance to compare notes, establish similar rules and arrange safe activities for their children after school. Without a doubt, this is also the best way for parents to identify school problems -- and problem children -- and to handle them before real trouble erupts.
But if you can't make your PTA leaders change their ways, look around for other productive jobs you might do at school.
Do the elementary grades need more fiction and nonfiction books in the classroom for those students who finish their work early? Perhaps you can ask friends at work if they have any outgrown children's books that you could pass on to the teachers. Or could you start a reading club for a half-dozen fourth graders at your house on Sunday afternoons? They work wonderfully well.
Or does the middle school ever put on plays? Perhaps you could paint some scenery or make a couple of costumes.
As long as you make the teachers your allies, you'll be welcome to help at school, with or without the PTA, but the whole family should also volunteer together at a shelter or a nursing home. Your boys will learn the pleasure of helping others much better if they do some of the work themselves than if they watch you do all of it.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.