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Of School Auctions and Self-Flagellation

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Every year on the eve of our school auction, the main fundraiser for our children’s public elementary school, my husband asks if we can just send a check and stay home. He’s generous: the amount he names would cover not only the amount we normally spend, but also the sitter’s fee and the cost of auction tickets and drinks. “Wouldn’t that just make more sense?” he asks.

He’s absolutely right. The auction is a lifeblood-sucking monster, and I’m not even one of those selfless few who volunteer to organize it.

It starts as soon as school is in session, with a “Mark Your Calendars!” announcement in our back to school packets. Already, before you even know which teacher your child has, you’re asked to solicit local retail establishments for donations, set up or check out on the day of the auction, and purchase your tickets in advance to the event, which is held at a swanky local country club. This year promises to be the best auction ever, if only you people will get up off your butts and make it so.

Meanwhile, the auction committee pushes on parents, hard, to donate: professional services, sports tickets, airline tickets, expensive bottles of wine. I suspect that when people receive a gift during the year that utterly misses the mark, they secretly think: “YESSSSS! Auction donation!” Parents also band into groups to host highly coveted group dinners – the Crab Feed, the Cocktail Crawl, the Photo Safari – that cost at least a month’s private school tuition to host.

Then the kids are dusted with Auction Fever by that most irresistible siren, the Auction Fairy. This good natured volunteer stands, resplendent in fairy wings and a wand, before an audience of rapt children a month or two before the auction, displaying plasticky detritus from China. She tells them that for every bunch of auction raffle tickets sold, they’ll earn a jar of Mars Mud, or a plastic telescope, or the Holy Grail for elementary schoolers: the Lava Lamp. The kids come home, frenzied, with sheaves of blank tickets for their parents to buy, the $500 Visa gift card prize for the raffle winner a possibility that starts slim and moves quickly to none. Once your own wallet is emptied, you’re pressed into service to push tickets on unsuspecting neighbors, family members, and co-workers.

On the morning of the auction, while volunteers arrange the treasures on tables arranged carefully around the country club, stress runs high – this item lacks a tag, and that tag lacks an item, who was supposed to show up with the helium balloons and where are they now? That club policy prohibits denim contributes to everyone’s anxiety, since we volunteers must create festive arrangements of the goods while wearing uncomfortable pants. Then you rush home to shower and change and feed the kids before the sitter arrives and you have to rush back, because all your daughter wants from the auction is the Gingerbread Cookie Party with her beloved teacher and there are only six slots.

To gird yourself for the inevitable elbow-throwing and pen-hoarding of battle, you down two stiff drinks once you arrive back at the auction and hope that your shoulders will soon unhinge from your earlobes. Of course, two drinks in, all that crap you set up earlier in the day starts to look more appealing, and soon you possess a new sewing machine, a Mexican beer stand, and a restaurant gift certificate for which you accidentally bid more than face value, as well as an exasperated husband.

I am certainly not going to talk about the panic you feel when someone overspends on an item you’ve donated. The amount of work and worry you’ll have to put in for when you actually host the “Egészségédre! Hungarian Dinner Party for Twelve” that your fellow parent just bought climbs exponentially as each new bid is called. It’s hard to resist the urge to stand up and yell at the tipsy bidders, “It’s not going to be that special of a night! My goulash is substandard!”

And I won’t mention the buyer’s remorse you feel when you wake up the next day, head throbbing, and discover a giant wicker basket of Semifreddi’s bread and a gift certificate to an estate planning seminar strewn with your handbag, earrings, and shoes across the kitchen table.

So why do I wheedle and cajole my husband to take me every year?

In part because I’m curious to see how the other parents clean up. We’re used to seeing each other in the school hallways clothed in the Harried Parent uniform of sweatpants and fleece. But on auction night, all bets are off. Every once in a while someone will trot out what looks like an old bridesmaid dress, and there was a year that one woman was a dead ringer for a Flaming Red Hot Cheeto – orange from her roots to her shoes. But for the most part it’s nice to see the moms and dads who trouble to put on a dress or suit, spritz on a little cologne and wear something other than sneakers. It’s like running into an old n’er-do-well college friend who, you’re glad to see, turned out okay after all.

But the real lure is the camaraderie when the rumor of how much we’ve raised starts to circulate through the crowd. “How much so far?” “They think it’s at least as much as last year, and they haven’t even auctioned off ‘Principal for a Day’ yet.” “Could you BELIEVE how much the Brazilian Dinner party went for?”

Suddenly all that crazy-making auction prep begins to have tangible meaning: field trips and hands-on science experiments, symphony concerts and daily gym class, computers in the classroom and teacher aides. It means providing all the things to a school that the state school budget should cover, but doesn’t anymore. It means we can even make a donation to another public school in our district, one where the parents don’t have the means (or aren’t crazy enough) to throw an auction.

It means that even when jobs are scarce and funds are low and everyone carries economic worry with them like a low-grade fever, you’re part of a community that still puts public education first.

And that, to me, is the ultimate auction treasure.

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Nancy Davis Kho is a freelance writer who lives in Northern California. When not throwing elbows to win silent auction items on behalf of her kids, she blogs at Midlife Mixtape.

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