By Rachel Pieh Jones
Lucy pulls a note from her backpack and hands it to me.
“Crap.” I crumple the note and throw it in the garbage. Then I pull it out and sign my name on the parent chaperone line.
“You don’t have to be a parent chaperone,” my husband says.
Right. I work from home, I’m available. Moms know it, teachers know it, our kids know it. I could stay home and stay sane and our kids will talk it out with therapists in the future. My mom moved me to Africa and then wouldn’t even go to the animal refuge with my class.
Or I can spend the day refusing to compare booger sizes, picking crumbs out of my hair, passing around squares of toilet paper because the bathrooms at the school in Djibouti are rarely well-stocked, and remembering why I am a writer not a teacher.
“You’re a writer? You work from home? Great, when we need a parent chaperone, we’ll send you a note.”
As a parent chaperone of elementary school events I do solemnly promise that I will find a kid if he gets lost, I will poke the eyes out of any would-be kidnappers, and I will do my best to keep the kids from dying. Beyond this, I can’t promise much.
I can promise that I will show up wearing the wrong clothes. No one told me that sports day means the kids come in shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes but that the French moms come in short skirts, heeled sandals, and jewelry. The Djiboutian moms come in silk dresses, flowing scarves, and jewelry. I come in running pants, a University of Minnesota t-shirt, tennis shoes, and a sloppy ponytail.
I can promise I won’t understand the instructions. Madame Barbara described my station and I couldn’t imagine how first graders were going to accomplish the high jump with hula hoops and bouncing balls.
“High toss,” she said slowly in French and then demonstrated, throwing a ball in the general direction of an elevated hula hoop.
I can promise the kids who come through my station will score well because I will make up for their failure to understand my instructions by giving them all top points. While other kids are following intricate mazes on balance beams and tossing beanbags at a specified number of tin cans, my kids throw the ball high. I set the hoops aside and they just throw the darn ball high. I will clap (none of the other mothers clap) and chase after the balls myself because I don’t know how to say ‘go get it’ in French and when I try, the kids stare at me with blank faces, some with their fingers in their noses.
I can promise that I will gag when they pull their fingers out of their noses and shove their goopy treasure into their mouths. I will cringe while helping kids turn their backward pants around. I like kids well enough but struggle to deal with the boogers and backward pants of strangers’ children, of children who don’t understand me when I suggest they get a Kleenex, that maybe they need a belt.
I can promise that I don’t know the French sing-a-long bus songs and that I will stare out the window while the other moms lead rousing musical sessions. I might join in with my lips pointing in all the wrong directions as I attempt to form French vowels while simultaneously mimicking hand gestures. If you are my unfortunate seatmate, the last kid to board the bus and who gets stuck with the foreigner, duck and cover your head for safety lest you get a finger in the ear.
I can promise that when we go to the animal refuge your child will be disappointed if she finds herself in my group. Monsieur Suleiman’s group will find all the animals in their guidebooks, discarded shed snake skins, rare birds, and rocks with crystals embedded inside. My group will find the deer-like animals and will spend half our time figuring out which word corresponds to this animal. The kids can’t all read yet and I don’t know the word for deer (cerf). Monsieur Suleiman’s kids will bring home the crystal-embedded rocks as souvenirs. Mine bring home mosquito bites and ants in their socks.
I can promise that I would be such a fun parent chaperone in my native Minnesota. This is any easy thing to promise because I am not in Minnesota.
I can promise that at the end of sports day I will find Lucy in tears because her running skirt is on backwards. Where is this child’s mother?
And I can promise that upon reaching home I will collapse on the couch, mumble a brief prayer of thanks for elementary school teachers, and sleep all afternoon.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.