Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rabble-Rousing Mama

"I'm in the midst of a slight tussle with my kids' school over the practice of the photography company that takes the children's school photos to send home packets of plastic bookmarks, keychains and magnets to every child in the school (whether you ordered photos or not) and then expecting you to either pay for or return them.  This kind of thing makes my hackles rise for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the crazy wastefulness of it all.  I have already gotten the big hairy eyeball from the principal and all five other PTA members for suggesting that maybe it is not so cool for the church next door to use the school as an advertising vehicle, but apparently I don't know when to sit down and shut up.

I wrote this letter to the school shortly before vacation, in about five minutes at 7 a.m. after M had nagged me for two weeks straight over whether I was going to pay for or return the photos:

Dear [giant school photo corporation] and ______ School:

Please do not send home unsolicited plastic photos of my children in the future.  we try to avoid needlessly waisting plastic in our lives because it is unhealthy for our children and the planet.  Polyvinyl chloride, the type of plastic you use to manufacture the magnets, is especially toxic to those who manufacture it and the people who live near those manufacturing facilities.  When it is burned at the end of its life (as much of our garbage in Maine is, and at as these that I'm returning to you probably will be), it again emits dioxin, which is one of the most toxic compounds known to man.

If I want pictures of my children I will order them.  I purchased pictures in the spring; these are perfectly fine and my kids have not changed all that much in the last six months.  I will not ever order unnecessary and wasteful plastic junk--truly, how many magnets and key chains does a single person need?  I already have more than I want.

I would appreciate it if _______ School and RSU ______ reconsidered its policy of inviting a corporation into the school twice a year to pressure parents into purchasing silly plastic junk they don't need  I know many families in our town cannot afford such an expense.  Perhaps there is a local photography company that could come in once a year and take pictures of those children whose parents request them, and then provide only photographs, not key chains and magnets?

It's frustrating for those of us who dodo not want or need this type of product, yet sending back the magnets and key chains gives our children the message we don't want picture of them.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

That part about my kids not changing much in the last six months sounds kind of heartless, doesn't it?  But M said he'd be "proud to" take the letter in, which about made me cry.

This is the letter I got back from the principal:

Thank you for your letter expressing your concerns regarding school photos and our contract with [giant photo conglomerate].  Unfortunately, your letter expresses you r personal opinion and is somewhat political in nature , rendering it inappropriate for ______ School's involvement.  We will keep a copy on file, however, with all due respect, we are returning the other copy to you for you to deal with as you see fit.

Because we need to have each student's photo for the cumulative files, all students have a photo taken regardless of whether or not parents decide to make a purchase.  if you wish not to have your children's photos sent home, please send a note to the school office and we will refrain from sending them.

Once again, thank you for your concerns.

At first I thought this was your standard brush-off letter (remember, I work for the government; in my old job I practically wrote one of these every week:  "Dear Mrs. Crazyinthehead.  Thank you for your concern regarding the smog along I-295/the freakishly large dandelions in your kid's school playground/your thoughts regarding the global warming effects of airplane contrails.  Blah-blah-blah-lots of concerned sounding meaningless gobbledygook with big words thrown in.  Please feel free to contact me again with any further concerns on this matter.  Sincerely, The Governor").  But now that I reread it, it kind of pisses me off.  No place for personal opinions in school matters?  Seriously?  Has the man never been to a budget meeting?  Anyway, this is the letter I had to write (before I reread the letter and got mad all over again) so that my brain would shut the heck up already and let me go to sleep last night. I may send it or I may just duck down and make up little 33 MRSA Section 1101 reminder cards to send in next time I get some of their crap:

Thank you for your response to my letter regarding the unsolicited distribution of [giant photo conglomerate whose name, now that I think of it, sounds kind of perverted] photo magnets and keychains through the school.   I apologize if my tone seemed strident.  You are correct that our family’s personal quest for simplicity and minimization of unnecessary junk was not pertinent to the discussion.  However, I am saddened that any consideration of the wanton waste of the planet’s finite resources and the pollution of the air and water from that waste renders any argument “political.”  What hope is there for our children’s future if that very future is not open to discussion?
Irrespective of the waste caused by the production and subsequent return of hundreds of photo magnets and bookmarks, the point remains that it is not appropriate to use a captive audience like children in a public school as a marketing target.  I realize you and I disagree on this subject, based on previous discussions regarding the church next door distributing promotional materials through the school. However, I feel compelled to reiterate the point.
My son’s teacher reminded his class on a daily basis for several weeks that the photos were not “free.”  This is incorrect from a legal standpoint.  Maine law, at 33 MRSA §1101, states, “Where unsolicited merchandise is delivered to a person for whom it is intended, such person has a right to refuse to accept delivery of this merchandise or he may deem it to be a gift and use it or dispose of it in any manner without any obligation to the sender.”  Of course I would not want to give my children the impression that it is ethical to take something for which you did not pay, regardless of what the law says, nor do I think it is fair to burden certain rule-following children with the anxiety caused by knowing those pictures linger at home in the to-do pile.
I have no problem with the school photographing my children for their record-keeping purposes, nor with being offered the opportunity to purchase photos if I so choose.  However I think that sending out the magnet/keychain packets crosses the line of commercializing the institution of learning and I do not see why changing the school’s (or RSU’s) contract with Lifetouch so that the company merely took children’s photos and sold photo packets to those who request them, without sending home unwanted merchandise, would be in any way political or controversial.  I have little doubt most parents would agree, and most teachers would be happy to remove from their long list of duties hounding their students to return their photo packages.
I realize you are extremely busy and I do not expect a response to this letter; I merely ask that you take seriously my request to make a simple change to the benefit of parents, students and teachers.
Thank you again for taking the time to read this letter and consider the issue.

Yes I do realize that in the realm of "pick your battles" I have probably chosen the least significant and most unlikely to succeed, but grrrr I get grumpy about the sheer volume of junk that school adds to life (don't get me started on the school store or holiday gift exchanges or prizes for good grades on tests--I thought the grade was the prize?!?!? and the recycling bin we fill twice weekly with worksheets and notices).  And I do hope this doesn't hurt my "public school for the people" cred.  Yes I still do believe in public's those devilish details though that are sometimes troublesome.


  1. Andrea, I am sitting here feeling so angry, and this isn't even our school! The letter you received in response is totally obnoxious on so many levels. It doesn't even sound like it was written by a school principal--it sounds more like it was revised by someone working for the company. It ignores almost everything you said and seems to misinterpret your point (though I'm certain they did not misinterpret it--they just chose to ignore it). If I were you, I'd without question send in a response. And I'd be furious about the church pamphlets, too. Honestly, there are so many things in this story that would make me insane. Don't give up on the rabble rousing!

  2. I live not so far away from you, we are about 45 minutes away from Augusta and so we were treated to the same products you were. This led to a discussion at our house too. My husband expressed similar feelings as you and I certainly agree although I have been so busy that I didn't give it much thought. I am glad you did though! I think you should send in the second letter, be true to yourself, you have a valid opinion. I think you would probably find that there are others that agree with you, but no one asks and no one speaks up and it is all assumed that everyone likes the idea. So church can peddle their goods at school, but your opinion is political? How does that work? That would piss me off!
    My 13 yo thinks that we should keep the stuff and we all knew that it was legal to do it. Ethicly, which do you go by? Legal or personal moral beliefs?
    Keep on being the squeaky wheel! I trully enjoy your blog.

  3. Don't be silenced; send the second letter, cc your school board and then see how the principal responds. I'm rootin' for you!

  4. Oh, I think the principal was extremely rude to you. If it was a private school, that sort of response would be par for the course as private schools do tend to have a "if you don't like it, leave" attitude, but public school principals are not generally snotty like that to concerned parents as they tend not to like to get calls from downtown saying that their parents are complaining about them.

  5. I admire you for speaking up, Andrea! And if it accomplishes nothing else, you provide an excellent reminder for your kids, and for readers like me, to speak truth to power. And it's probably good that the principal knows there is a rabble raiser paying attention. Your son's pride in you is AWESOME.

  6. Kudos to you! Your letter(s!) are smart, professional communications that deserve an equally thoughtful response. I agree that you should send the second. Do you think it would be helpful to send a letter directly to the photo company?

    Your actions here are the stuff change is made of.... I am reminded of Margaret Mead's quote, "[n]ever doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."


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