The microphone felt heavy and cool in my hand, a natural extension that was immediately recognized by my muscle memory. I had, after all, eighteen years of practice speaking into one. The crowd was animated, ready to begin the live event. Sonorous and quiver-free, my newscasters VOG (Voice Of God, in industry lingo) lifted over the hum of the audience, amplified by a small speaker slung over my shoulder like a purse.
“Henry?” I called out, and a little boy with a crew cut darted from the mass of energy that is Benjamin Franklin Elementary School’s student body. “Your mom is here!” Henry slipped through the opening in the chain link fence and I turned back to the black top. Franklin, being a foreign language academy, produced an Enzo from the Italian class, a Sebastian from Spanish, and a Chelsea from the German class (not a German name at all but the girl could star in remake of The Sound Of Music). This school is an international melting pot of tiny humans who chatter in four languages. And my new job of School Dismissal Monitor, despite being unpaid with no opportunity for advancement, might actually teach me something.
When I anchored the morning show at CBS, I never had the time or energy to be a school volunteer. Now that I’m unemployed, I’m determined to get involved. Once a week, I read in Spanish to Griff’s class, enthusiasm making up for a bad accent. I also volunteered to commandeer goods for Franklin’s annual silent auction fundraiser, so if anyone has an unopened set of Star Wars DVD’s, tickets to Disneyland, or a beach house in Hawaii they’d like to donate, don’t be shy.
But the switch from full-time career woman to full-time mom has a steep learning curve. I’ve tried to summon my inner housewife for help, but she’s either sleeping or dead, so I blunder often. The first day I was scheduled to help in the classroom, I forgot. The two room moms graciously forgave me, but they must have wondered if I was ditzy, disorganized, or both. And on my maiden voyage as Dismissal Monitor, one of the Spanish teachers showed up to ensure I didn’t wreak havoc or start Karaoke-ing for the captive kids. The maestra (teacher) had her own microphone, and in the time it took me to connect ten kids with their parents, she cleared the rest of the line, locked the gate and strode off towards the office. I couldn’t blame her for stealing my volunteer thunder–she’d been cooped up with twenty-five six-year olds for seven hours and probably needed a drink.
So, why does being a school volunteer feel more rewarding than the night my newscast won an Emmy Award? Perhaps because it is novel for me. Perhaps because my kids wiggle with pride when they spot me on campus. Or perhaps it’s the instant gratification that comes from helping others.
“Are you kidding?” said my friend Lisa when I told her how much I enjoyed my new job. “Being a crossing guard in school was one of my proudest moments. More than being elected student body president.”
“Really?” I asked, certain she was joking. “Why?”
“It gave me a sense of accomplishment and made me feel like a leader,” she answered without thinking. “In fact, I still have my Crossing Guard badge,” she added. “That badge, and the flag from my father’s grave—those are two of my most treasured possessions.”
With all the kids safely released, Griffin helped me put away the metal barriers that keep parents from crowding the gate, the afternoon sun highlighting the gold in his hair so that he glowed like the littlest angel. Then we went to return the old microphone and loudspeaker to the office, crossing hot asphalt to enter a cool, shadowy hallway that felt achingly familiar, though my own elementary school days are more than three decades in the past.
“Mom?” Griff said, looking up at me as if I were a Super Hero. “You did a really good job today.” And I nearly wriggled with pride myself, not needing any other reason to volunteer than that.