Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

by Sandra Miller

The kids are settling into their new grades, reuniting with friends and devising crafty nicknames for their teachers. Iíve just endeared myself to the school secretary by dropping off my late $1,500 tuition for public kindergarten in our fine Boston suburb and Iím thinking the oversize white envelope she is handing me must be a thank-you note. Thank you for choosing to forgo your summer vacation and, instead, giving your son an education that you thought you had paid for with tax dollars. But when I peek inside the envelope, I do one of those full-bodied shudders. I cautiously look over my shoulder. I can run, but not that fast. Sally Foster is coming for me.

There she is, Sally herself, on the very first page, hawking her overpriced reams of reversible gift wrap, gingham memo pads, and scrumptious chocolate crispie joys that in turn, my six-year-old son and I are supposed to enthuse about to unsuspecting neighbors. At curriculum night, parents are encouraged by the perky PTO chairperson to "sell sell sell" and "do our share for the school." We are expected to applaud the stunning revelation that we get 50%, thatís right folks, half, of the profits, and every roll of gift wrap counts toward stuff so the school building wonít fall apart and -- if thereís change left over -- -perhaps a traveling storyteller in the spring. This is our chance. Our chance to become capri-clad, suburban versions of used car salesmen. Quick, give me some of that five-colored raphia ribbon so I can hang myself. 

I am not new to this. In fact, my whole parochial school life K through 12, I was required to sell (depending on the liturgical season) plastic coated pocket calendars, plastic pots of Easter lilies and boxes of candles in a variety of nauseating scents. Between seasons, we sold candy, and I pretty much put myself through 8th grade by eating four whole boxes of buck-a-piece chocolate bars then covertly paying for them out of my babysitting money.

But that was a Catholic school for God's sake. In enrolling me, my parents agreed to pay tuition for my pain and suffering and the privilege of wearing the same plaid skirt everyday for 12 years. My little school was probably giving the money allocated for science books to missionaries in Borneo, and we needed to compensate by pushing candy. I remember my public school friends selling stuff, too, only they used their profits for new cheerleading uniforms and ski club trips to Mt Ascutney. Luxuries. We Catholic kids were just trying to get by.

Of course in addition to wanting to help my school, I was in it for the prizes. They improved in each grade with our increased level of responsibility and pricier products. By high school, calendars had given way to magazine subscriptions. I remember sitting on the bleachers as a freshman and being roused to my feet by the raspy-voiced man who lead a pep rally with the oversized, green sponge hand that said St Thomas Aquinas Saints #1 (ours for selling a mere five magazine subscriptions) and a green, felt top hat (seven subscriptions). He promised a bus trip to New York city to anyone who sold twenty subscriptions, three record albums for twenty-five and, best of all, the top salesperson in the school won a nine-inch black and white, General Electric television. In that moment of school spirit and potential salesmanship, I felt like the Powerball jackpot was just a few subscriptions to Seventeen away.

I went for it that year -- I rang doorbells and phoned distant relatives, I even bought my own subscription to Readerís Digest because, for some mysterious reason, it counted as two subscriptions, not just one. I got a green, #1 hand and won a top hat and I went on the New York trip, which meant squandering a day on Fifth Avenue with other top sellers, none of whom, including myself, had enough spending money for much more than some street pretzels and a soda. As for the TV, I could just not compete with Sabrina DelRio who apparently had a million magazine-reading Italian relatives on one side of her family and a million magazine-reading Portuguese relatives on the other. She dusted us all by about 50 subscriptions and walked off, smug and deserving, with her new television.

That was then when I still believed that God was a nice, old guy with white hair and that fundraising could solve any budget crisis; when it felt like I could be a school superhero and win myself some excellent, free loot in the process.

Today I see it differently. Because of cuts in education, our public schools in Massachusetts are being stripped of the necessities. Last year, our town suffered a 10% decrease in our school budget and we had to let 50 school employees go. Parent volunteers with no specific training stepped up to provide art enrichment classes and library time, but it takes approximately 35 parents volunteering to make up for one lost teacher. Spanish lessons came from now used-up grant money, and Art, that was cut at the beginning of the year, has just been reinstated with some found money. Hallelujah! Thereís cash again for crayons.

And here I am with my shiny brochure knowing that I could sell 1000 sets of ďI scream, U ScreamĒ ice cream bowls and I may as well be using them to scoop water from the sinking ship called the SS Public School. My thought is to send the whole package to Laura Bush and say, ďHey, arenít you a mother? Do you not get this? Do you understand that while your husband is out annihilating the fiscal future of our country, we need to sell key lime delights for our kids to have any semblance of an enrichment program? And while youíre at it, can I interest you in some London mint Meltaways?Ē

Iím pretty angry, but I know thatís not the answer, either. I brought kids into this world, now Iíd darn well better remain hopeful for them, otherwise those power mongers in Washington win. But, I canít help it, ceramic eyeglasses holders and coordinating Daisy gift wrap do not make me feel hopeful, yet I have to do something other than buy the folding sewing kit with a built-in pincushion and stick the needles in my eyes. So hereís what Iíve come up with.

Next year Iím going to trash my oversized envelope and screen my new movie called "Get Wrap or Get Whacked." I will let people believe itís the true story of Callie Doster, the wife of Republican Senator Dick U. Doster who is trying to win reelection as the Education Senator despite having closed several public schools in his state and re-appropriated funds to have Thom from Queer Eye makeover his leer jet. Desperate to look like a public school champion, he bought his wife Callie a facelift and a gift wrap company and is holding her completely responsible for all state education funding.

I will star as Callie Doster while my friend Babs will play the remorseful mom forced from the PTO after bringing store-bought brownies to the bake sale. In her PTO-free time, Babs will discover that the opportunistic Callie is really just a pawn for her evildoing husband, and our schools will be a safer place when Callie and Dick U. are dead. The most memorable scene will be when Dick and Callie, wrapped in reams of her own Christmas foil and weighed down by fifty cartons of her aromatherapy cube candles, are sinking to the bottom of the Charles River. Babs will have saved the schools, and the enrichment programs will once again come from this fondly memorable thing we call state funding.

I anticipate charging five bucks a ticket and corralling at least a hundred parents into that first screening. One hundred percent of the profits will go to the PTO.

And while this is a far reach from my Catholic girlhood days of working my neighborhood with my magazine order forms and TV dreams, it is the best I can do right now. And God knows, we have to do something.
Sandra Miller is a Boston mama who spends the brutal New England winters wishing she were an Austin mama. As a freelance writer she writes anything that moves her. Sheís penned a psychological thriller, a couple of juicy screenplays and is currently working on an irreverent self-help book with her psychologist husband Mark. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Literarymama, Modern Bride, Walking Magazine, The Toronto Star and more.