My 12-year old son does sports at school, and that means that his parents “do” sports as well, meaning that we drive places, and then drive back from places, and “volunteer” to help out at sporting events. Right now, it’s basketball season, and this week I was “volunteered” to work the concession stand at one of the games. I love to watch my son move; I love to see him run when he’s doing cross-country, sprint when he’s doing track, pass and shoot when he’s playing basketball. What I do not love is wearing plastic food-service gloves and selling dried out pizza to snotty 13-year old girls, who, with their masses of barrettes and braces, travel in packs and never say “please.”
The way our school Booster Club handles parent “volunteers” is like this: you are never scheduled to work at the game your child is playing. You are scheduled to work either before or after. Presumably this is because you don’t want to miss a minute of seeing your child play their sport, and since you’ll be at the school anyway, what’s another hour and a half of your time on a school/work night? This seems like it is an attempt to be considerate, and perhaps it would be if the gym was more than say, 10 feet from the concession stand/hallway/table where people pay the entry fee.
Let me set the context for you. This is not Big 10 basketball. It’s not even miniature 10 basketball. This is a small parochial school where you can see into the gym from approximately 30 feet from the school entrance. You could, in fact, if you were especially talented, be a hall monitor or a concession stand operator, or the person who takes the money when people come in AND watch most of the game AT THE SAME TIME.
The reasons for this are that 1) most of the activity happens when the game begins and at half-time, and by “most of the activity” I mean popping 10 bags of popcorn, selling some preheated pizza, and helping indecisive children choose between the red Skittles and the blue ones; and 2) basketball games for this age group seem to take place in 7-second increments, like this: scramble, run, foul; scramble, run, foul; scramble, run, foul. So not only can 3:48 minutes on the clock last 6 hours, but also you would have PLENTY of time to walk the 10 feet between the gym door and the microwave if you wanted to watch and sell things at the same time.
But anyway. On Monday night, I was the concession stand person (despite have gently requested to be “volunteered” on any night but Monday because it is the longest and most stressful day for us). On Monday, I left work at 4:30 to pick up Gabe, drove across town to home, picked up Jacob, drove back across town to school, dropped him off for his game, drove back home to make dinner for Gabe, left Gabe with Noah, and drove back to school to do concessions for the next game. In the pouring rain.
Because the “volunteers” have to be at their stations early, as if learning the price of a soda and a pack of Starbursts takes special training, I got there in time to see the last 15 minutes of Jacob’s game. I got to see him score, to keep reminding his teammates to keep their “hands up,” to move his beautiful lithe body in an element which seems perfect for him. And I got to clap for his teammates, even the skinny one who gets called for travelling every time he gets the ball, the not-skinny one who took a shot for the other team, and the tall one who squints each time the ball comes towards him. I think there were 800 fouls in the 15 minutes that I saw. But still. They won, and it was nice to see some of the other parents and to feel part of the whole thing.
Then came the concession stand. Now, I have done this job before, and despite my lack of math ability, I do indeed understand the concept of making change and handing out junk food. But the “leader” of the “volunteers” for that night seemed particularly territorial about the concession stand. She didn’t leave my side for the whole game, as if she was afraid I was going to walk off with the cash box or the leftover pizza. She acted as if she was solely responsible for the success of a small business that was just getting off the ground.
There was literally no reason for me to be there. And I just couldn’t let myself think that, because if I did, I would have had to pick her up and throw her out into the still pouring rain, given how inconvenient it was for me TO be there. I made myself think about the cross country coach who gives so much of his time and energy to his team; about the athletic director who does way more work than anyone should have to and never seems to lose patience (or hope). I put on the plastic gloves.
The highlight of the evening came when a very tiny blond girl wearing a “Life is Good” t-shirt came to the concession stand with a dollar. She looked about 9, but she must have been a 25-year old law student in disguise, because we had quite a lively debate about what candy she should buy. The dilemma was this: she had to share it with her 2-year old brother, and he was not skilled at verbalizing his preferences. When I asked her what he liked she said, “If I ask him that, he’ll say something completely random like ‘elephants.’” So the candy had to be something that could be shared, which cancelled out the Ring Pops, something they both liked, and something that he would not choke on (I seemed more concerned about this than she did), which ruled out the Laffy Taffy and the Starbursts.
Eventually it was coming down to either the M&M’s (but which ones—chocolate or peanut?) or the Skittles (again—red or blue?). “I could buy the Skittles and just tell him they were M&M’s,” she said speculatively. “You could,” I agreed. She debated with herself. For a long time. Finally I decided to try out a little test that I heard about from a presentation by the social psychologist Sheena Iyengar on TED. Iyengar is a very prominent research in the field of decision science, and her book, The Art of Choosing, deals with how complicated and sometimes self-defeating choice is. She’s also blind, which gives her work a very interesting perspective. She looks at how lack of choice can be very damaging, but the burden of excessive choice can be as well. “Okay,” I said, “How about if I just tell you what to get. If you agree, then you’re done. If you don’t agree, then you’re done too, because you know you really want the other thing.”
She eyed me warily for a few seconds, and then said, “No. I’m going with the Skittles. The blue ones.” She handed me her dollar, I handed over her candy and her change, and said, “Congratulations. That was money well spent.”
As the parents left the game, one of our friends saw me behind the table of candy, next to the microwave and the pizza warmer, and started to laugh. “This is so you,” she said. “I wish I had my camera.” I laughed. “I just saw Peter (her husband) down the hall on a folding chair reading the New York Times,” I said. “Yeah, he’s the hall monitor,” she replied. We both laughed.
I collected my son, thanked the coach, and left thinking about the word “concession,” which means “the act of conceding or yielding, as a right, or privilege.” I thought how I so very, very often feel that by living a life where people seem to want something from me all the time, both at home and at work, I feel as if I have conceded all sorts of rights. That I often feel bewildered by the question of choice, and the implications of the choices that I have made—do they make my life more mine or less mine? If I had to choose all over again, would I do the same things? I have no idea and will never know. Another loss. Or another burden lifted.
Driving home in the rain, Jacob and I talked about the game, how his free throw was so sweet, and how he chipped his tooth on his friend’s shoulder. I told him he played incredibly well, because he did. I hoped we had Advil at home. And I conceded to myself that it had been so worth it, for just those few short moments of hearing those boys play, their feet thundering down the court, like hoof beats, like freedom.
Thanks Listen with the night falling we are saying thank you we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings we are running out of the glass rooms with our mouths full of food to look at the sky and say thank you we are standing by the water thanking it smiling by the windows looking out in our directions back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging after funerals we are saying thank you after the news of the dead whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you over telephones we are saying thank you in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators remembering wars and the police at the door and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you in the banks we are saying thank you in the faces of the officials and the rich and of all who will never change we go on saying thank you thank you with the animals dying around us our lost feelings we are saying thank you with the forests falling faster than the minutes of our lives we are saying thank you with the words going out like cells of a brain with the cities growing over us we are saying thank you faster and faster with nobody listening we are saying thank you we are saying thank you and waving dark though it is