Volume 22, Number 05 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 19 - 25, 2009
The sweet rhythms of the bake sale counter
By Michele Herman
Friday afternoon: 2:15. I’m working the weekly bake sale Downtown at I.S. 89, where my younger son is an eighth grader. The other bake-sale moms and I are raising easy money for the graduation, and we have it down to a science.
Because the kids share the building with an elementary school, their lunch period is some ungodly morning hour, and they’re ravenous by the time they’re sprung at 3. We stake out a strategic spot in the lobby, catching them and their spending money before they can haul off to the deli down the block. The first couple of weeks our spreads were magnificent — decorated cupcakes, peanut-butter kisses, garlicky bagel chips, nice signs. But market research (i.e., seeing what’s left at the end) indicated that all the kids really want is hot dogs, lemonade and brownies, so that’s what we give them now, a buck apiece.
My husband says we’re nuts to put all this time and effort into raising money for the eighth-grade graduation, a party that will last a couple of hours and that marks one of life’s more forgettable rites of passage. He has a point. When you break down the process, it is a little thick with middlemen (or women): we buy the ingredients, we bake the goods, carry them to school, sell them to kids in exchange for money which they’ve probably been given by their parents, money which we then use to throw them a party, which will involve more baked goods.
But a lot of life’s endeavors work this way. I remember the horror I felt as a child when I asked my mother why she attended so many meetings, and it became clear that she attended meetings mostly to plan more meetings. My younger son, like most kids, has similar feelings about making his bed, which he will proceed to mess up the very same day. But I argue that extra effort is not necessarily wasted effort.
From where I’m standing — behind a table filled with fresh brownies as varied as the bakers who made them and a cash box stocked with singles from last week’s sale -- a bake sale seems like one of the more wondrous rituals of life with schoolchildren. What more timeless, locavore business transaction is there than making something sweet with your own hands to feed to your children and their peers to raise money for the institutions that they attend? As with many subjects having to do with the unpaid work of mothers, there’s not much written history about bake sales. But my guess is that they have existed almost as long as there’s been fire and barter, and they will continue to exist until the sorry day when we get our nourishment from a pill-dispensing robot.
Bake sales are also a great excuse to watch the kids in action, at a time when they’re changing so fast it’s hard to get a bead on them. They line up in front of me, one Converse All-Star-clad foot in childhood and the other in adulthood. They are silly and serious, oblivious and polite, loud and bashful, latent and sexual — sometimes within the same body. Fish come in schools and lions in prides, but middle-school girls come in huddles. Sometime between sixth and eighth grade, they grow so long and lean it’s as if they’ve been through a taffy pull and have all stuck together. The boys are more motley in size and shape and groupings. Some are beefy and deep-voiced, while others are still waiting for their hormones to get to work. My own son has grown four inches in the past few months. Each week when he comes by for a lemonade, gripping the paper cup with a big man’s hand, I do a double take. The kids fish cash out of their pockets or their first wallets. They’re adept at handling it, but you can tell it’s still a bit of a novelty.
After feeding the big kids, we hoist the heavy tables down the long hall and out to the yard to catch the little ones. The elementary kids are small and soft and can’t resist touching the goods. Each one comes with a grown-up attached. Their transactions are much slower and more painful to watch — there are eating habits to be instilled and sugar rushes to be avoided and sibling jealousies to be appeased. Shifting from the independent middle-schoolers to the needy elementary kids is like a trip back in time, to a phase that seemed, at the time, as if it would last forever.
Me, I’m hurtling forward. In the fall, my older son will be a high-school senior and my younger son will be a freshman. In high school, if there’s a bake sale, it’s conceived and run by the kids. College is a time of many sweets — late-night runs to the grocery store, free sundaes sponsored by the Random Act of Kindness club, but it’s not a bake-sale time of life. And besides, when the time comes, I’ll be at least a state, if not half a continent, away. I know that my bake-sale days are numbered, which is why I’m filling up on them now.
The other crucial ingredient is the moms. We’ve all been in the mom business for quite a while by now, and we’re pros. We have stamina and strength and as much grace under pressure as a Hemingway hero, along with the famous eyes in the back of the head. We are also really good at sensing the needs of others, staying out of the way when discretion is called for, and bonding over a cash box with a pesky latch.
One recent Friday, when we were cleaning up, the sweet younger daughter of one of the moms threw up a chocolate cupcake she had barely finished chewing. A middle-school kid would say “euuw, gross.” I picture the average dad sighing and looking around for help. But us moms? We enacted an impromptu mom ballet. One reached for an empty Rubbermaid container, another held the girl’s hair back and stroked her head. I ran for the school paper towels. You know the ones — they’re folded brown rectangles and when you wet them they practically turn back to sawdust. And, like bake-sale brownies, they give off a sweet smell of life with schoolchildren.
Michele Herman is a freelance writer and part of the I.S. 89 P.T.A.