The last thing I had time to do was attend the District 91 school board meeting last Thursday night. It is the holiday season; I had been invited to attend the PMSA Choir concert, Betsy Ross had the second grade holiday concert, Boy Scouts were preparing for their weekend trip to Wisconsin to spend the night at Eagle Cave, Cub Scouts were in the re-chartering blitz, and laundry was a week behind. Plus, this is the week of candle lighting and Mensch on the Bench.

Perhaps you are familiar with Elf on the Shelf, based on a 2004 story about “scout elves” who are adopted by families to report to Santa. These elves play hide-and-go-seek, moving around the house or room, watching over the children. Every family has their own traditions, and some elves are very clever; some are naughty, some nice.

When Aunt Jennie, gave us Mensch on the Bench, finally, I had an answer to my son’s question, “Why don’t we have an Elf?” Now I could say, “because we have a Mensch.” Shortly after Moshe our Mensch arrived last year, our pitbull puppy, Mini, ate the bench, the book and our Moshe the Mensch’s mustache, leaving him with just a beard. So this year, our more Amish-looking mensch was ready to do good deeds around our house.

In German, “mensch” is simply a “man.” Add a Yiddish spin, and that “man” becomes “a person of integrity or honor.”

So this year, when Moshe cleaned the bathroom, everyone in the family got to enjoy his honorable handiwork. He sat proudly on the toothpaste-free sink, next to the toothbrushes, out of reach of Mini’s jaws. Perhaps our mischievous dog sensed our attention to the joy of cleanliness, and while we were at work and school, she ravaged the Sequence Board Game that was left on the coffee table. Her signature shredding was all over the living room, not a sequence chip left in a bag or a card untouched.

This catastrophic scene greeted us that evening. I was only home long enough to walk though ground zero and start dinner in the kitchen before running to pick up my husband from work, leaving the tattered box, sequence chips and cards behind with my two kids. 

When I returned, there was the Mensch, on top of a neatly collected pile of what was formerly known as the board game with a note: “Courtesy of the Mensch.” What a guy. Our mensch has been busy around the house doing all sorts of deeds of integrity. He matches socks, helps to fill out the reading-counts log, replaces lightbulbs and even washes dishes. 

So when Thursday night rolled around, I found a way to go to the board meeting, although I could only stay for an hour, and worked up the courage to speak for my allowed three minutes. Other people were there, two parents and later a third with her scholarly student, and Nona, the reporter from the Review.

I had only an hour of listening before I had to go; our Mensch wasn’t planning to cook dinner, after all. I learned all about the recent school board conference and how proud D91 was to have representatives Dr. Cavallo and Eric Connor making a presentation there. They talked about how successful they were in the past, attending engaging presentations at the conference, even when they were in New Orleans a few years ago. They also had a list of board goals for the next year, including one to think of what to present at the conference in the future. Several of the board members had attended a session to hear Ruby Payne, author of A Framework to Understand Poverty, and shared how influential her presentation was.

In my comment, I shared my wish to have the board meetings livestreamed. I know that Forest Park has a history of not liking people who suggest such things, but I said it anyway. It is a way to bring more families, like mine, who want to listen and be present, but are struggling to find the space in our lives to be available to our families and our schools and our jobs and our PTO and our school board.

There are insightful people on our administration and board, and there are insightful parents in our schools, and both groups want to have courageous conversations. We have started to see our administrators and board member at some of our South PTO events, where 60-100 families congregate almost every month. It is a great honor to have people willing to engage in conversations serving our families and communities. 

We all want our schools to be excellent, and if we all find a little more space in our lives to be a little more engaged, we can get there.