Fists raised in triumph, the man lorded sweet victory over his foes and strutted, his puffed chest straining the buttons of his Brooks Brothers shirt.
A fruit and vegetable quilt. His 5-year-old daughter made the lime.
School auctions are great theater, I’ve learned. They can be a checkbook sword used to settle long-simmering playground disputes, and — as more schools are learning — one way to close the growing budget gap that schools all over are suffering.
Spring is auction season in Washington area schools, and some of the displays of power and largesse here at the epicenter of parent overachievement can seem positively 2005.
“I wasn’t sure whether to be mortified by his behavior or proud of him for giving so much money to the school,” the sister of the Master of the Universe/Quilt Conqueror Dad confided to me.
If the auctioneer is good enough, the winning bids can be breathtaking.
“I remember this one. Bethesda, I think,” said professional auctioneer Lynne Zink, who lives in Maryland but is hired to do live auctions in schools throughout the mid-Atlantic region. “A parking space at the school. It went for $9,000. And they sold three of them!”
Part of the formula is getting a good auctioneer to amp up the bidding.
They know how to spot two friends eyeing one another nervously across the chicken piccata, wary of hurting the other’s feelings by raising the bid.
“There are no friends at an auction,” Zink tells parents as part of her schtick, which she calls auctiontainment.
Super-smooth auctioneer Tony Mapp gets flown in from North Carolina for one D.C. public school’s auction.
Each year, some parent questions whether Mapp’s worth the cost. He donates his time, but the airfare and hotel add up.
I’ve seen him at the mike for three years in a row, and it’s always auctiontaining.
“Aw, come on, man. Is that all you got? You’re gonna let him do that to you?” he said once to two rooster dads in blue blazers, squaring off over the rims of their glasses of merlot. “You’re not going to walk away from this now.”
And up it went, climbing to $1,000, then $2,000, and up for a bottle cap-encrusted lamp made by kindergartners and a coffee table decoupaged by 4-year-olds.
He’s worth it, all right.
Did I mention that alcohol is important?
“It made all the difference to eliminate the kids and add the alcohol,” said Gineane Stalfort, who watched the profits from her kids’ Charlottesville public school auction more than quadruple when they changed it from an afternoon picnic with the kids to a swankier affair.
When her kids went to a private school, she chaired an auction that was a black-tie event and raised half a million dollars. That was for an elaborate new building at the school. Items on the block included a donation from John Grisham giving the winner naming rights to a character in an upcoming novel.
Some private schools launch these galas to fund elaborate wants. Others do it to fatten the scholarship fund, helping to ensure some diversity of students.
So the private schools will thrive, despite the economy. But what about schools who don’t have Grisham as a benefactor?
Turns out the school auction is no longer the realm of the tony privates.
In Charlottesville, the tiny public school where Stalfort’s kids now go was about to lose its principal and P.E. program, thanks to state budget cuts. So the parents raised about $20,000 with their vino-fueled bash, which was enough to close the gap and fill a need.
“It really made our parent base rally around something, knowing we needed to raise money,” Stalfort said.
In less-affluent schools, the showy live auction is scrapped and silent or online auctions allow everyone to bid for such items as oil changes, pizza parlor nights or manicures.
Bidding for Good runs about 3,600 school auctions online, and about 1,100 of them are for public schools.
Online bidding allows for some of the anonymity that the more, um, personal auction items demand. Those usually raise more controversy than money.
“We had a plastic surgeon at the school. And we wanted him to donate something. But then we thought: ‘Who would bid on a boob job?’ ” Stalfort said.
The vasectomy that was offered at a silent auction at one of my son’s public schools a couple years ago was the talk of the party.
“Oh. My. God. She didn’t! You know he’s not going for it,” one mom said, after tiptoeing backstage to link anonymous bidders to names.
Thanks to good sources, I can report that all the bidders on that item were female.
In other auctions, I’ve seen people shun the teeth whitening, the diet center membership and the dermabrasion. Those items probably would have fetched more under the veil of Internet secrecy, I think.
I was stunned to see that no one at my school auction two weeks ago was brave enough to bid on the anger management workshop. Honestly, what parent doesn’t need anger management training?
Right here, bidder number 321. Sold — for $72.