Q: I volunteer at my child’s school, usually multiple days per week. At the end of the year I asked the principal if next year she would please let my child have a certain teacher for science. She told me that the computer does all of the enrolling. I know for a fact, however, that principals can override that if they want to. I know she’s not going to enroll every child by hand, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing a small favor for the people who help run the school. I and the other volunteers work in the office, work at fundraisers, answer the phones, bring in food for teachers, all for nothing in return except the privilege of helping. Don’t you think if the school would do us a small favor in return it might mean more people volunteering?
For today, let’s step over the issue of your trying to micromanage your child’s schedule and focus on what it means to be a volunteer.
When we volunteer for something, just like with any good deed, it should not be with the expectation of receiving anything in return. Someone once told me that if you’re helping others and expecting something in return, that’s not kindness. That’s business.
There is always a cost to doing business. In this case, one hidden cost is that you will be putting your principal in an awkward position. If she grants you a special favor, won’t she then have to do the same for every other parent who volunteers at the school?
And if she does, how will she then, in good conscience, turn down other parents who have a request? You would probably say they haven’t put in the same sacrifices you have by slaving over a school phone all day, and for no pay. So you’re more worthy of having your request fulfilled.
But perhaps they’ve had to sacrifice in other ways because they can’t afford the time it takes to volunteer. There might be hundreds of moms at your school who would love to come and help, but they have to go to work, all day, every day, for money. Not so they can bribe the principal into slipping their kid into the most-favored teacher’s science class, but so they can pay the rent, have electricity, and put food on the table.
To better clarify the situation, you might consider renegotiating your terms of volunteerism with the principal. Don’t hide your intentions. Be candid. Tell her, “I am willing to give this number of hours a week, but in return I’m going to need you to give my child the following schedule ...”
If it sounds crass, that’s because it is. But − and I know you probably won’t see it this way − making such demands after having performed the service is even crasser.
Of course, you could always just forget about the favor you want and just volunteer your time because it’s a nice thing to do. As you have seen, however, there is a cost to this, too. But it might be a cost worth paying.
When I was a teen my father made me mow the neighbor’s lawn. I wasn’t keen on doing it since I wasn’t getting paid, but the way my father often taught me to be kind to people was by forcing me to be kind to people. It was a good method. I doubt I would have learned it otherwise
As I was mowing, I ran over a nest of hornets, and they were angry. It felt like I was being riddled with bullets. My father saw me spraying myself down with the garden hose in a panic. Never a man known for his philosophical ruminations, he laughed and said, “Yeah, they’ll get you sometimes.”
I was embittered. I thought I’d be rewarded for my good deed, not punished. But when our neighbor − a kind man in his thirties whose wife was in the hospital suffering from the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis − got home and saw that his yard was mowed, his eyes grew damp. He gave me a gentle “thank you.” That was all. But it was enough.
I learned two things that day. One is that we should help others simply because we can. If you have extra water, give it to someone who’s thirsty. It’s far better for all of us to carry just a slightly heavier burden than for one of us to buckle under the oppressive load.
Second, I learned that when you’re doing a good deed for someone, sometimes you get stung. It isn’t fair. But the alternative is to either ignore the needs of your neighbors or demand compensation in return. Both might make good business sense, but they are serious mistakes of the heart.
I think you should just let virtue be its own reward. You got stung by your principal, and I see how that can hurt. But you’ve done a kind thing for everyone else at your school, and without your help, everyone’s burden would have been a little bit heavier.