The Back to School Picnic [Or, My Kind of Night] – Anne Foray
If you are anything like me, by Friday evening of the first week of school, you like your kids fed, scrubbed and asleep by 8 pm. Because after 8 pm, the gates are locked, the outside lights are black, and there are antioxidants to drink.
Yet, once in a while, my obligations conflict with my vaguely anti-social tendencies. And so, because “Balloon Tank” was the only position left when the sign-up sheet made its way around a table back in June, last Friday night I found myself in the custodian’s closet with 2 tanks of helium, 150 balloons, scissors, and a roll of pink ribbon. Uncertain that this would be my kind of Friday night and in keeping with my temperament, I sat in the basement and let the party come to me.
Two things about Friday night: it was hot. “Why did the sun crash into the Earth?” hot; And 2) it was going to rain. I mean, it had to rain. Right? The “feels like” temperature was about 300 degrees.
When I arrived at my post with my daughters in tow, we found Anthony (God Bless that man) and he taught me all about helium tanks. Or not. So, we found him again because I needed reassurance I wasn’t going to blow up the school.
The first balloon was exciting. I pressed the little purple nozzle to the side and… there was a helium filled balloon! I delivered my lecture about the wonder of good ol’ number 2 on the Periodic Table. I learned that if the balloon slips off the nozzle, helium gas burns and will, instantly, scorch what was once a perfectly formed fingerprint. Yet within mere minutes, I was settling into a delightful rhythm of balloon inflation. I was telling my daughters the fascinating story of the helium shortage and they were listening so intently, so silently. Of course, when I turned around, the hallway was totally empty. My daughters were gone. That’s ok, they came back with updates.
My daughters, eager to show off their (literal) underground connections, brought their acquaintances around for balloons. If my evening had a soundtrack, the first song would be Farmer and the Dell but the lyrics would be: Blowing up balloons, blowing up balloons, making balloons for everyone, blowing up balloons…
My younger daughter came screaming down the hallway, “I need money!” I fished some sweaty bills from my shorts but she elbowed her way to the doorway, volunteering to help for a few minutes. The line of red eyed, sweaty, kids had begun to form.
She screamed the rules down the hallway:
1) a ‘Buddy Special’ is a “purple balloon AND a white balloon”;
2) “Behind that line on the floor!”;
2) “Back up or you get nothing!”;
3) “Why are you standing next to me? Get behind the line!”
While screaming her demands and taking orders, she cut pink string of varying lengths with an attention to detail appropriate for a sugar loaded seven year old. She was an excellent bouncer but I turned around to ask her for another pink string and, again, she was gone. With my money.
The line continued to form at my closet door. Sometimes, the kids would form a constantly shifting cloud of demands. “Long string!” “A short string!” “Can you tie it to my wrist?”
To the disappointment of waiting children, the helium tank’s powers were commandeered for official PTO business. We needed balloon bouquets for the front stairs. So with the help of some new found friends, including a lovely woman named “Tracy” or, maybe, “Elizabeth”, I made dozens of beautifully filled purple and white balloons and we delivered them to the doors of the gymnasium where the DJ had encamped to escape the rain. Because, it was going to rain.
The line for the ice cream truck was long but happy. Clusters of parents gathered and seemed genuinely pleased to see each other. The stairs, plazas, sidewalks, benches, and playgrounds were a swirl of children. None of whom I recognized as one of my heirs should I die in a freak helium accident.
But out of the masses of bright, loud humanity, stepped my husband!
“Where are our kids?”
I motioned to the playground. “Probably up there,” I offered. “Or maybe in the gym…or the cafeteria.”
I spotted a friend of mine and asked her to tell my kids, if they came by, to check in by my balloon room.
I showed Paul my helium hideaway.
“Why are you in a closet in the basement? Holy cow, it’s hot in here. Will you be here all night?”
“Umm, yeah!” Because it’s awesome!
“Ok. I can’t stay in here. I’m going to go find our kids.”
I can see the groups of people gathered outside the glass doors at the end of my hallway. I see purple and white balloons tied to the arms of a billion kids. Pizza slices, rainbow colored ice pops, sweaty bottles of water, and laughing mothers.
For an instant, I feel a bit rejected in my balloon closet. But just as I think no one will ever come to see me…my eldest daughter rips through the glass doors. “I need money!”
Again, I fish through my sweaty pockets with my burnt, numb fingertips. I hand over all I have left. “I want change. Did you find your Dad?”
“Yeah!” And just as quickly, she ran back out the glass doors.
Well, I’m down here alone after delivering yet more bouquets to all the people having a swell, ice cream-eating, socializing, popcorn-munching, playground-playing great time.
I guess I’ll fill balloons. Lots of balloons.
There were maybe 10 balloons floating against the ceiling tiles when I noticed the swarm. A swarm of boys running at me screaming, “Balloons!” And then it happened…. A balloon rush.
The time went by so quickly after the initial swarm that I didn’t look at the clock.
Mostly they stayed outside of the room unless they got really excited. And when that happened, I reminded them they had to stay on the other side of the door saddle. I told them to make a single file line. And they did. I talked to parents about helium, balloons, sweat, rain, weather, numb fingertips, beer, and so on.
I replaced balloons that disappeared into the sky, were popped by siblings, singed by pizza, covered in ice cream, or simply, abandoned in a corner of the gym during a dance off.
The younger kids were partial to a “Buddy Special”, which remained a purple AND a white balloon. Most boys preferred white. Girls wanted purple. Middle schoolers wanted balloons without strings.
If a parent was leaning against the wall and seemed to have a facial expression communicating anything happier than “I’m in Hell”, I would ask if I could get a little help cutting strings for the balloons. One very kind mother, I think her name was Alyssa, cut at least twenty strings for me. A middle schooler even offered to help me. One little girl asked me, quite politely, “May I please have a white balloon?”
And I felt a bit like George Bailey when a boy, probably about 10 years old, said, “Oh, It’s ok. Whatever color is easier.”
At some point around 7:00, my kids appeared and my husband, eager to go home and sit in an ice chest, negotiated an exchange. He’ll take the kids home and if they go without incident and go to sleep, they get King Cone two nights in a row! Two!
An internal monologue: I can’t feel my fingers. I literally can’t feel my fingers. Tying balloons is really hard when you can’t feel your fingers. Did she say white or purple? I don’t remember. Why is everyone’s face so red? It’s like a line of lobster people.
My last line was a group of girls who worked out a solution when I ran out of purple and realized I was down to only 6 white balloons. “It’s ok. I don’t need two.” A kid actually said that. It was amazing.
Then, I ran out of balloons.
It was 7:52. The helium tank, only partially filled to begin with, was running very low on helium. It was dark out. It hadn’t rained. The parking lot had mostly cleared away but the ice cream truck was still there serving ice cream to a handful of stragglers. I walked up to the cafeteria and asked if anyone needed my help. No more help was needed but a friend said, “Where have you been?! I haven’t seen you all night!”
As I walked out the gym doors, I noticed that all the bouquets of balloons I had made with the help of so many lovely strangers had been adopted by the swarms of excited kids.
And, you know what, I was home by a little after 8. And my kids weren’t asleep exactly but they were scrubbed and in bed and reading.
So, yeah, the Back to School Picnic is my kind of Friday night.