Out of all the many part-time jobs I’ve had (bar trivia host, U.S. Census-taker, SoCo shot girl), working as the after-school assistant at a Seattle elementary school is by far the easiest. I get there at 3:20 pm to supervise snack time and take attendance. I make sure all the students get to their proper after-school activity, and then, forty minutes later, I make sure everyone gets picked up by their proper parents. I’m usually out of there before five o’clock.
Sometimes I help the after-school teachers, like the other day when the cooking class instructor was making donuts with the kids (is this a good idea?!) and needed someone to help her manage the small children and the hot oil, but generally the teachers want to be left alone, and I’m happy to oblige. I usually sit on the couch in the upstairs hallway and read until it’s time to start checking the kids out.
Probably the most important part of my job is that I’m the one who waits with the students when their parents are late or calls when the parents have completely forgotten to pick up their children. This is the sad part.
“Where’s my Mommy?” a concerned Kindergartner will ask.
“Don’t worry,” I’ll say. “I’m sure she’ll be here soon. But I know how anxious you must be to get home.”
I don’t really mind waiting because I get paid by the hour, so I look at late parents as a little bonus on my paycheck. Besides, this is the time when I get to have some one-on-one time conversations about topics such as dinosaurs or Captain Underpants. I feel like this is the most important part of my day – reassuring kids that their parents care about them, and then helping to distract them until their parents arrive.
Friday was the last day of after-school activities for the semester, and so the classes had performances for the parents. The students in the musical theater class put on an abbreviated version of Aladdin, which was mostly unrecognizable except for when they sang “Arabian Nights.” The kids in Pirate Club, wearing eye patches and tinfoil hook-hands, gave their parents handmade maps and led them on a treasure hunt around the school. And the older kids in Newspaper Class handed out the school newspaper and gave a presentation on what they’d learned about journalism.
This meant that most of the parents were already at the school, and checking out the kids at the end of the day was fairly easy. Good, I thought. I wanted to go to a yoga class at 5:45, and I figured I’d have plenty of time to get there.
Except that when I checked the Newspaper room, there was one girl, we’ll call her Serena, whose mother had not shown up for the presentation and was not there to pick her up. So I called.
“Hi this is Eva from –”
“Oh, Serena!” the mother said, mistaking me for her daughter. “Where are you?”
“This is Eva,” I said again, enunciating. “I’m here at school with Serena, and newspaper class is over, so I’m just checking to see if someone is on their way to pick her up.”
“Newspaper class?” The mother sounded elegant and proper, maybe even slightly British. “Oh my gosh, I missed the performance, didn’t I? Oh my goodness.”
“So I’ll be here waiting here with her…”
“Yes, yes. OK. I’m on my way. I’ll be there in… fifteen minutes.”
Serena and I went to the table in the front hall of the school to wait.
“Your mom says she’ll be here in about fifteen minutes, so you might want to get out a book or some homework,” I suggested.
Serena pulled a book of Calvin and Hobbes comics from her bag and hunched over it.
Fifteen minutes went by, and Serena asked the time. “A little after five,” I told her.
She sighed and went back to Calvin. I, too, was getting a little antsy. I didn’t want to miss my yoga class.
Ten more minutes went by, and the mother still hadn’t arrived. Finally, at forty-five minutes late, the front door swung open and a woman in a long, camel hair coat dashed inside. Her blond hair was frosty and perfectly-styled, and her face, though old for the mother of a fourth grader, was well-maintained and attractive. She seemed rich, put-together, haughty, even. Except that there was a tear beneath one eye, which she swiped at with the back of her manicured hand.
“Serena!” she rushed to her daughter. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry! I’m so, so sorry!”
Serena looked up mildly from her comic book. The mother turned to me. “You must be…”
“I’m Eva,” I said. “You talked to me on the phone.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s OK. It’s my job. I really don’t mind.”
She pushed eight crumpled dollars towards me. “It’s all the cash I have on me, but please–”
“Oh no.” I shook my head. “No, really, it’s fine. I get paid by the hour. It’s really not a problem.”
She insisted, and again I insisted no. I thought about my yoga class and wondered if I could still get there on time.
“Those are such beautiful earrings,” the mother said suddenly.
“These?” I touched one with the tip of my finger. “Thank you. They’re just from American Eagle.”
“They’re beautiful. They look real. I mean they really do. They look like they could be real diamonds. They’re lovely.”
“Well, thank you.”
“May I see?” The mother reached out to touch one of my earrings, and I wondered if she, the woman in the expensive camel hair coat, really thought my eight-dollar earrings were beautiful, or if this was her way of trying to smooth things over. Nearby, Serena watched us, and I wondered what she was thinking.
“Please.” The mother held out the five dollar bill. “Please. At least take this.”
I hesitated. I didn’t want to take the money. On the other hand, if I didn’t, I could imagine the exchange going on for another ten minutes – me refusing to take it, and she insisting that I do. If I wanted to get to yoga on time, I would need to leave right now. And so, against my better judgment, I reached out my hand.
“If it’ll make you feel better,” I murmured. “But really, it wasn’t a big deal. It was fine.”
We said goodnight, and the mother wrapped her arm around Serena and led her outside where cold, misting rain fell from the black skies.
I pocketed the five dollars. I felt bad. I felt dirty, even. I shouldn’t have taken the money. The woman had made a mistake, and she thought she could fix it with cash, but I doubted it had made either of us feel better.
Besides, it wasn’t really me she was apologizing to. It didn’t matter that she’d made me wait around. That was my job. What mattered was that she’d missed her daughter’s presentation and made Serena wait in the cold, empty school. It was Serena she had been apologizing to all along.
On my drive to the yoga studio, I decided that I wouldn’t report my over-time. I felt bad about accepting the five dollars, but at least I wouldn’t get paid twice. I thought of Serena’s mother with that tear shining beneath her eye like a tiny diamond and marveled at how difficult it must be to be a mother — even a glamorous one.
I guess it’s like Calvin says in Calvin and Hobbes: “There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”