I have a difficult relationship with volunteer work. On the one hand, of course I want to be a helpful person. On the other hand, when I do volunteer my time to an organization, I don’t always perceive that they make the best use of me. After all, if they don’t, it’s not like they’re wasting their money. Maybe my help was really needed, maybe it wasn’t—it’s all the same to them. (My other altruistic behavior, donating blood, entails no such misgivings, since a unit of blood is worth about $5,000.)
When I wrote the story below, about cleaning up the playground at my kid’s co-op preschool, I was a bit bitter because our daughter’s application for the next year had been turned down. The school was oversubscribed, with a long wait list, etc., and technically my daughter’s birthday was just outside their (seemingly arbitrary) cutoff. That story has a happy ending—the school ended up bending the rules and accepting my daughter for the next year—but I didn’t know this at the time. So I wrote this tale while in a cranky mood, which probably improved it. (The tale, not the mood.)
Cleaning the Preschool Yard – April 23, 2008
Last Saturday we had to clean up the preschool yard again. I was feeling incredibly fatigued to start with, unnaturally so. I even passed out for ten minutes in the car when we got to the preschool, from this crushing fatigue just sopping the life out of me, and then when I joined my wife in the yard she’d snagged the push-broom. Dang it! That’s supposed to be my job!
Using that broom is the only thing I feel qualified to do at that playground: sweeping sand back into the giant ground-level sandboxes. The yard looks really nice when the sand is all flush with that spongy ground surface, but I wish they’d install a lip there to keep the non-sandbox areas from being invaded by great dunes between clean-ups.
I guess there’s technically one more job I feel qualified to do, which is extracting dead leaves from the sandboxes, but I hate that job. The scritch-scritch of the rake is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. And it’s a fool’s errand, trying to get the leaves out, because most of them are these tiny things like the crispy onions that lousy restaurants put on salads, and there are thousands of them, podlike, floating continually down from the trees, making me want to not only cut down the trees, but to fund the design of a sophisticated herbicide that could eradicate that species of tree from the planet.
So I wandered over to the water play station, which is this crazy tri-sink apparatus. Surveying it, I was reminded how much I like this preschool, even though it’s expensive and they rejected my daughter for next year. Some part of me can’t shake the thought that they’d have bent the rules for Lindsay if they liked her more. This is irrational, but there it is.
So, yeah, this playground sink thing is a tribute to the school, having obviously been built by a very, very smart parent, not just a skilled plumber but somebody who understands how to educate a child. A physics professor couldn’t have devised a better way to demonstrate the water table effect to children. There are all kinds of valves to open and close, and sprayers, and tubes that feed water, via gravity, to other sinks, and it’s just a masterpiece except that it’s in this play yard with all this sand, and the less sophisticated students (probably the boys, frankly) evidently think there’s nothing more fun to do with this engineering marvel than to fill it full of sand.
What is it with boys and sand? When at a playground, my daughters play sophisticated games of psychological and social intrigue, their favorite being Incarceration, where they pretend they’re in a prison and have to orchestrate daring escapes. And what do little boys do? Dump sand all over the slide, in the sinks, in the playhouse, everywhere, ad infinitum. I’ve watched this play out at playground after playground. It doesn’t usually bother me, except when it’s here, because every time I clean this sink, I am removing massive amounts of sand from it.
This time was particularly bad, as the plumbing was completely clogged. I decided to drain the standing water from the sink manually so I could sweep the bulk of the sand out before tackling the plumbing itself. To make the sink-draining process less tedious, I tried to teach Lindsay and Alexa about siphoning. With each unavoidable mouthful of filthy water I got starting and re-starting the siphon, I consoled myself that at least I wasn’t siphoning gasoline. The scumbags who steal gas out of our car, right in front of our house, have that to deal with; once there was a pile of vomit next to the hose the dude left behind. Of course, when we’re paying through the nose to live where we do, it’s not actually all that comforting to think that gas theft is going on in our community.
Anyway, my kids were reasonably attentive with the siphon lesson, until they both realized that instead of listening to me, they could dig an extensive network of canals and such to make use of the water suddenly at their disposal. I can’t very well tell my kids not to play, because the only saving grace of this particular work detail is that we don’t have to get a sitter as long as those two stay out of our hair.
At one point Alexa killed my siphon by lifting up the end of the hose, and the prospect of another mouthful of filthy water doubtless influenced my reaction. Here I marveled at my own grumpiness: I should be glad that my kid is even halfway listening, whether or not she absorbs the lesson, because most kids would be ignoring me completely, flipping me off and/or dumping more sand in my tri-sink apparatus. Which was proving to be my Waterloo.
I scraped most of the sand out of there, to the detriment of my already wind- and ice-water-chapped hands (girlie-hands that should take real work in stride but have been softened by office work) and then set about trying to unclog the sinks. Between flossing the pipes with a hose and trying to build up enough pressure to blast out the sand, I got confused and turned on the wrong valve and got a full sprinkler going, right in my face, soaking half of my dry-clean-only sweater. Did I mention that there was a cold wind howling through there? I thought this was spring! I thought this was California!
Anyway, I eventually got the drains basically working, and Lindsay and Alexa complained bitterly when their water supply was finally cut off for good. It was sort of hard to tell what Erin had been working on this whole time. The place looked better, sure—the sand was smoother, there was a bit less of it on the non-sandbox surfaces—but it seemed like I’d been fighting with the sinks for ages; surely by now everything else should look good as new? I’d hoped so, because my contribution would be practically invisible, and one little boy in five minutes would probably re-clog the whole sink station before any adult laid eyes on it. But there was no metamorphosis in the yard, and—worse yet—Erin still had control of the coveted push broom.
Oh how I envied her that push broom. I think the best thing about the push broom is that you can just stand around leaning on it, feeling like a government-employed janitor killing time until his shift is up. Whenever I do schoolyard cleanup I fantasize about living in a socialist country, taking comfort in the idea that when that whistle blows, I’m done, whether or not I accomplished anything during my time there.
Our actual situation is quite different: we don’t get to leave until Erin is satisfied that we’ve done a kickass job of cleaning, one that will bring glory to the Albert family within this preschool community—never mind that they’ve already rejected our daughter and by extension our whole family, so it’s too late anyway. And never mind that most of the other volunteers probably show up, set a tipped-over pail upright, bury a few dog feces, and bail after five or ten minutes. I looked around and made the mistake of being obviously between tasks, and Erin asked, “Are you ready for our special job?”
Man, I thought this whole thing was special. You mean we have some extra tacked-on thing to do this time? Yes, we do. We have to organize the tool shed: she’d signed us up for this. Now, if there’s one thing I’m really uncomfortable with (actually, there are actually a great many things I’m uncomfortable with), it’s organizing some area that isn’t mine. If somebody went and organized the tools in my garage, I’d be really annoyed.
Actually, that’s untrue. I’d be really pleased if somebody organized my garage, but only because there is no organization there—I’ve got house tools (coarse, ugly, practically unusable) and household gewgaws (incomprehensible, crummy, made in China) all mixed up with bike tools (beautiful, perfect) and bike parts (precise, precious, expensive). But this isn’t my garage we’re talking about. It’s an established preschool, and if there’s one thing worse than performing manual slave labor to incrementally beautify this doomed child-ridden environment, it’s putting out similar effort to actually lower the quality of the adult-focused subset of that environment. Somebody who actually cared about the tool shed probably spent a fair amount of time and energy figuring out how to organize it, and it’s pretty well organized. What could I do to show that I’d put in my time, besides changing things around arbitrarily?
So I hauled everything out of there, swept, and hauled it back in. This took a great deal of time. Most of what I was hauling out were tricycles: really awesome, heavy, bulletproof tricycles, the coolest I’ve ever seen. At least a dozen of them. Glorious, surely European-made, some with trailers, some with cargo bays, most of them swept back like choppers, with the sleek yet burly industrial look of WWII-era aircraft or Kitchen-Aid mixers. Where did these things come from? The newer tricycles among them—also Euro, also cool—were already wearing out. The older ones suggested an earlier time, a golden era, when the preschool was either totally flush with cash, or had a kid whose dad was either a tycoon or just very, very fond of exquisite trikes and children.
I suppose handling this fleet of sweet trikes could have been pleasurable to me, but the sad fact is, my appreciation was lessened by the thought that Lindsay doesn’t even ride the trikes, because she’s not strong enough to pedal them. (I’m not surmising this—she’s told me so.) Alexa tried to ride one while we were there, but the effort of running over a hose or a tree-root-lifted concrete lump was enough to ruin both her forward movement and her resolve.
So anyway, I got everything out, sorted some rubber balls (a grown man, sorting balls!), flung some things back behind other things to create the impression of tidiness, swept a bunch of sand out of there, and then brought everything back in, and half the sand with it. Meanwhile, another family had shown up to clean the inside of the school, and their kids ran through the puddles, joined by Lindsay and Alexa. Those two completely forgot their very clear instructions, and tracked sand all over the play structures until they looked exactly like they did when we arrived. I kept a close eye on the tri-sink area, ready to intervene should anyone go near it with so much as a pinch of sand. Another gust of wind came in and broke loose a mind-boggling flurry of leaves, which settled down over the sand like a blast of confetti in an operating room. (Don’t over-think that metaphor.)
To my amazement, at this moment Erin declared we were done. And for what? By the time we found Lindsay’s and Alexa’s shoes, put our equipment away, and hauled ourselves out of there, the place looked like a war zone. Two and a half hours, and the teachers will probably think we never showed. Sweet.