Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The difficulty of measuring importance

It’s hard to gauge the importance of some events.

I spent a lot of time over the past month working on the annual spring faculty-staff luncheon at our school, which took place yesterday. It was my third year as volunteer co-chair for this event, but it hasn’t gotten any easier over time – just more familiar. Every year, the job involves weeks of sending out emails asking parents to contribute food, beverages, paper goods or money to the event and reminding them of what an important way this is to show our appreciation to our school’s very deserving professionals.

The event went beautifully yesterday. More than one hundred families prepared dishes or donated other items, and the 150 faculty and staff members who filed through the buffet line and then sat down to eat amidst decorations and flowers that transformed the school lunchroom all seemed delighted. Dozens of the teachers, aides, administrators and support staff who attended thanked my co-chair and me for our work in coordinating the event.

All of this makes me really happy. I like that this annual event makes the teachers and staff feel appreciated by the parents – they deserve that feeling. And in spite of the weeks of sending emails, organizing plans, purchasing paper products and decorations, and preparing my own contributions to the luncheon, I always enjoy working with the other volunteers. In the end, we always have fun.

And yet as tired as I was when it was over, I couldn’t help feeling a little sheepish that the big event taking up so much of my time and energy had been planning a luncheon. I thought of other women my age whose typical work days consist of performing heart transplants, captaining fishing boats, advocating for children in court. Those all seem like fine justifications for being tired at the end of the day. Hosting a luncheon seems a little trivial given the time and energy that went into it.

It’s one of those things that’s difficult to judge: is it frivolous that I spent so much time on this, or is it just a matter of how everyone does good in their own way? My work day will probably never consist of lifesaving medical procedures or legal advocacy for the needy. If I can throw a luncheon that makes a fairly large number of deserving teachers and staff feel appreciated, isn’t that a reasonable justification for the time it consumed?

I’m not sure. I was happy to do it, though I’m even happier now that it’s over for another year. I just can’t quite decide. Does the sense of benevolence and goodwill that this event generated outweigh the intrinsic implication of frivolity?

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to draw that line in the sand. But just thinking about it reminds me of an interview I did earlier this spring. I had the opportunity to write an article on Peggy McKibben, whose son is internationally acclaimed environmentalist Bill McKibben. At the end, she referred to the fact that people the world over have learned about climate change threats and other significant issues from Bill – through his books or his articles or hearing him speak or participation in a project his foundation organized. But, she said, her other son is a second grade teacher In Maine, and he holds a lot of influence over his small group of seven-year-old followers as well. Who knows which of the two men really has the greater impact?, she asked rhetorically. And she’s right. There’s no way of measuring one’s potential impact or ability to do good.

My luncheon won’t change the world, not even a little bit. But the guests had fun attending it and the volunteers felt good about hosting it. Frivolous? Maybe. But it generated good feelings all around, and that’s something the importance of which I simply do not know how to gauge.

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