Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Stage Mama Scorned

When I started blogging at the first of the year, I assumed that the PTA arts festival I've been co-chairing at Ben's school would provide lots of material. Adolescent children, helicopter parents, my own totally undeserved reputation for being "so organized!" -- really, what more could I ask? But week after week, this six-week "celebration of the arts" -- visual, literary, and performing -- has droned on, with nary a mildly amusing anecdote to relate. I was about to give up hope. Until a couple of days ago, when the universe IM'ed me. Oh ye of little faith! it said.

Actually, the universe was starting to drop little hints a year ago. I was a co-chair of this event in 2007. Our best-in-show winner -- an eighth grade boy who was just like Jimi Hendrix, only rich, white, and not nearly as talented -- decided he had better things to do than honor us with his presence at the dress rehearsal for our showcase, the public event where the kids the judges have picked as winners get to perform for parents, friends, and classmates. When we called him to say that if he wanted to strut his stuff in front of the entire school the following night, he'd better be there in 15 minutes, he told us he'd be there within an hour. My fellow chairs and I are patient women, but after four hours of listening to middle school rock bands, country singers, and dramatic actors, we were ready to head home and pull out the corkscrews, so we told him not to bother. The next morning, Jimi Jr.'s dad called the vice principal, a man who walks the halls swinging a stick; the vice principal told us we had to let the kid in the show; and the little darling thumbed his nose at us with a way-over-the-time-limit jam session that met with thunderous applause. (If only Jimi knew that one of our mom/roadies had been trying to yank his amp cord out of the socket just as he stopped on his own.)

This year, we were ready. At the suggestion of no less than the school principal (he'd been out of town last year when the vice principal told us to shut up and tend to our knitting), we required the parents of each performing entrant to sign a pledge, carefully drafted by moi (for this I went to law school?) promising that their child would show up for dress rehearsal if chosen as a winner. "FAILURE TO DO SO MEANS YOUR CHILD WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PARTICIPATE IN SHOWCASE," my pledge stated.

And that wasn't all. We told the kids back in December not to enter if they couldn't be at the dress rehearsal. We broadcast the policy, as well as the fact that the dress rehearsal might go on for hours, on the school website. We even sent parents a letter in January saying that the dress rehearsal would last until 6:30 or later. This year, we were covered.

Or so we thought.

Our first inkling that perhaps we might have a problem came just minutes after we announced the winners last week. Two of our winners, twin sisters who danced together, timidly approached us. "When is the dress rehearsal?" one of them -- let's call her Britney -- asked. "Cause we have a dance team dress rehearsal that day," the other -- let's call her Jamie Lynn -- told us. We reminded the girls that their mother had signed a form saying they'd be there. "Yes, ma'am," they said in unison and hurried off.

Friday night, as I was settling in for a three-day holiday weekend, I got an e-mail from another mother. "My daughter has a mandatory dance team dress rehearsal that conflicts with your dress rehearsal. We were hoping you could work with us so that our girls can do both."

Now, on the face of it, I'll grant you that the mother's request didn't sound unreasonable. Nor did the e-mail I got on Sunday from yet another dance team mother saying she wanted to "work with us" so that her daughter could be in both our talent show and what apparently is the Most Important Dance Team Competition in the History of the Western World.

But there's more to this than meets the eye. I won't bore you with all the reasons, only two of them.

First, back in December we told five very talented children -- including one who beat Britney and Jamie Lynn last year -- that they had to choose between the talent competition and a play they'd been cast in because the two shows had conflicting dress rehearsals. Was it fair to those kids to let Britney, Jamie Lynn, and their dance teammates bend the rules because they didn't tell us about their conflict until after they'd already won?

Second, "work with us" apparently means something different in the dance team world than in the one where the rest of us live. Our idea of "working" with these moms was for each side to give a little to get a little. Their idea of "working with us" was to try to wear us down until we consented to let them do whatever they wanted.

Their "Operation Make 'Em Change Their Mind" began on Sunday. In the wake of the e-mails, I'd conferred with Carol, another of the show chairmen, but Alice, our evil triplet, was out of town. I was awaiting her return Sunday night when Britney and Jamie Lynn's mother -- let's call her Lynn -- called.

Lynn's voice was dripping with honey, but what she said was anything but sweet. She told me our rehearsal was too long because we'd scheduled far too much time for each act. (Obviously she hasn't dealt with adolescent rock 'n' roll bands, with their endless sound checks and their parent roadies. Those folks would keep Jesus waiting.) She told me her kids didn't need a dress rehearsal because they'd been on stage so much. (Maybe not. But were we supposed to consider each act one by one to decide who had sufficient experience and who didn't?) She told me that we'd never made clear that our dress rehearsal would last more than a couple of hours. When I told her that in fact the parent letter I'd sent out last month actually did just that, she said she'd have to "take my word" that I'd actually e-mailed it to her.

That was it. My voice was rising to an unchairmanly volume. I told her I would get back to her once we'd reached a decision.

Alice got back to town later that night, and she agreed with Carol and me that we should stand our ground. But we decided we'd e-mail the principal and make sure he had our back before we told these girls' mothers their children had to come to our dress rehearsal. Meanwhile, Ben was launching a flank attack. (I realize I'm using vaguely militaristic language, but this had started to feel like war.) "Mom, you've got to let them in," he said. "Jamie Lynn's the only cheerleader who speaks to me."

Monday we waited. Around 7:30, Lynn called. "Just checking to see if you've made a decision," she said cheerily.

"Not yet," I snarled.

Around 8, Britney and Jamie Lynn's dad called me. "I know you've got a tough decision to make." He sounded like I was the president and he was seeking a pardon. "I just wanted to make sure you knew how important this is to Britney and Jamie Lynn. I hope you haven't gotten the impression somehow that we think the talent show dress rehearsal doesn't matter." (Strangely, I had. That was probably because Lynn had essentially told me Sunday night that the talent show dress rehearsal didn't matter.)

Perhaps sensing that I wasn't convinced, Jamie Spears -- I mean, the girls' dad -- kicked it up a notch. "We've spent $600 on Britney and Jamie Lynn's costumes and music and on their choreographer just for this talent show."

Now I don't mean to be judgmental, but on what planet does it make sense to spend $600 on a talent show entry? Not only is it a sign of incredibly poor judgment, over-indulgent parenting, and distorted values, it's not a real persuasive argument for why you should receive special treatment. If it were, I'd phone Yale up right now and tell them they should let Billy in next year because we've spent a hell of a lot on SAT prep.

No sooner had I gotten off the phone with Daddy than I received an e-mail from the principal. "I've got the flu and will be out all week. We've accommodated people for years. Now it's time they accommodated the PTA. I support your decision to require these girls to attend dress rehearsal." I phoned Alice, who agreed she'd be the one to call Lynn with the news.

Fifteen minutes later, she called back. Lynn was just as outraged as we'd expected. She'd eventually hung up on Alice, but not before saying "Do you even have children?" To which Alice replied, "Do you think I'd be chairing a middle school talent show if I didn't?"

I'd love to say I slept better Monday night, but I didn't really. I kept thinking things like "Our best argument is ..." and "we should make the case that ..." For this, it turns out, I did go to law school. And I wasn't the only one who wasn't getting much sleep.

At 7:45 this morning, my phone rang. A croaky voice spoke to me from the other end of the line. It was the principal, calling to get a little more detail, since he had already received a phone call and an e-mail from two different sets of parents about our decision.

He still supports us, and we've heard nothing more today from the dance team parents. But it's still 17 hours till the dress rehearsal begins. I won't be surprised if the superintendent of schools calls me tomorrow for a little chat.

So this is what we've come to, folks: a world where some parents are so determined that their children get every single opportunity to show off in front of an audience that they insist the rules shouldn't apply to them, spend $600 on choreography and a couple of costumes, and get a sick principal out of bed at night, all while their children are watching.

It's enough to make Mama Rose blush.


Fab Grandma said...

And then they wonder why little Britney and Jamie Lynn are self centered, spoiled rotten little brats that no other human on earth can stand to be around.

I just wish those parents would take a step back and really see what it is that they are teaching their children:
You're too special to follow the rules.
I will come to your defense no matter how stupid it makes me look.
You can do whatever you want and have no consequences for your actions.
and on and on...

Betsy Bird said...

Exactly! My husband and I have always said there seem to be two kinds of parents: the kind who try to shape the world to accommodate their kids, and the kind who try to train their kids to shape to accommodate the world. We've tried our best to be the second type, not because we don't love our kids, but because we think the most loving thing to do for children is to help them develop the resourcefulness and the resilience to deal with the world as it is.