As another school year begins, so does the great volunteer round-up. Parents are needed to head up gift-wrap sales, holiday craft projects, and class parties. Wanted posters come home pleading for moms and dads to volunteer in library time and art class. Attend PTO/PTA meetings. Man booths at fund-raisers. Brainstorm and spearhead enrichment projects. Chaperone field trips.

Thankfully, Malcolm is starting middle school, and the other boys are in high school. Parent volunteers are not much in demand at this level. I was the world’s worst elementary school volunteer. Unlike lots of admirable parents, I just WASN’T THAT INTO IT. I was not one of those moms attending every PTO meeting, inheriting a project binder from the last chair and improving it for the next. I never signed up to be home-room parent. One PTO meeting was enough for me. I knew my limits.

In the civic realm, things were not much better. As a young, clueless professional, I was honored to be asked to join the boards of a community center and a retirement home for the impoverished. But then I had to attend the meetings. And the reality of listening to hours of droning kicked in. Also, the expectation that board members would give money hit me in the head (this point was always softpedaled so much during the courtship that I actually thought they wanted me for my writing ability).

Once, at a meeting of the retirement home’s board, we were chastised for not coming up with enough money. Still ringing in my ears are the harsh words of the development director, who stood up and intoned, Patrick-Henry style, “Give. Get. Or Get Off!” Both offended and relieved, I chose Option 3.

My volunteerism, it became clear, went through stages like those identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in “On Death and Dying.”

1. Enthusiasm

2. Boredom

3. Resentment

4. Regret

5. Bitterness

Now that my volunteer arc has been diagrammed, I’m happy to realize that I’m not completely a selfish, terrible person. There exist certain volunteer jobs I love to do and will always agree to. I’m truly happy to organize and run a rummage sale or a used-book sale. Opening dusty boxes, sorting, pricing, selling…that’s so much fun, I hardly realize I’m volunteering. I’ll speak to 8th graders on To Kill a Mockingbird at the drop of a hat. Ask me to help spruce up the neighborhood swimming pool one Saturday each spring. See if I’ll play piano for the town Christmas Carol sing. I’m there.

The key word is: FINITE. I’m into the projects, not the 3-year-interminable-terms. Give me something I have a personal interest in, with a beginning, middle, and end. I’ll sign on the dotted line.

I’m just thrilled, frankly, that I’ll never have to spend an hour each Monday alphabetizing picture books in the elementary library again.

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