July-August 2013 | Domestic Disturbances

The 'Highest' Bidder

School fundraisers can get a little hairy, especially when alcohol is involved

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We’re on our way to the beach to spend a long weekend with a family we’ve never met, apparently because the auction committee at our local elementary school succeeded in its quest to get us parents drunk (I say “apparently” because the details of the evening are foggy).

Perhaps I should give a bit of context.

Most of the year, our schools are upstanding institutions, focused on educating our kids, teaching the Golden Rule—treat others as you want to be treated—and promoting sharing. But at the annual fundraising auction, parents enthusiastically jettison those values. Nearly every school holds an auction, and the goal is simple: to raise as much money as possible in one evening by separating parents from their wallets. And that often requires alcohol—lots of alcohol. I’ve heard of local school auctions where free shots are offered, and others where drink tickets are handed out at the door.  

My husband, Glenn, and I always attend these auctions because we’re firm believers in supporting our educational system—and because we’re looking to score good deals on Nationals tickets and cheese platters.

The evening always begins with parents chatting politely. We check out bid sheets for the silent auction, contemplating what to purchase.

A martini pitcher with cute, matching glasses?

Well, we think as we polish off our first glass of wine, it is for the school.

Massage and facial at Elizabeth Arden?

The second-graders would be so grateful.

A gift certificate to Georgetown Cupcake?

We bid $40 for a dozen cupcakes, and the next time we circle past the bid sheet, we see someone else has bid $60. They didn’t even go up by the suggested $5 increment! It feels show-offy and vaguely aggressive. Are they suggesting they love their children more than we do? We console ourselves with a glass of vodka topped with just a dash of orange juice.

Soon, organizers announce the silent auction is about to end. That’s when the parents swarm bid sheets like lions circling a limping zebra. The martini pitcher set that was a “maybe” 10 minutes earlier is now an object of psychological warfare because the same big spenders who stole our cupcakes (“Bidder 65”) have outbid us by $5 for the set.

We up the ante by another five bucks and stake out the bidding sheet (by “we,” I mean “I”; Glenn is sampling pigs in a blanket, not realizing our family is in a Godfather-style showdown over honor and pride). A woman wanders over. Bidder 65, perhaps, camouflaged as a sweet-looking room mother? I give her the stink eye: That’s right, Room Mom, hustle along!

A minute later, the bidding has ended and we’re the triumphant owners of an $80 martini pitcher with matching glasses worth $35 perhaps. The set likely will collect dust in our cabinet for the next decade until we donate it to Goodwill (at which point Bidder 65 will pick it up for a dollar). But I’m not feeling bitter about this because it’s time for the live auction. That’s when the real action begins.

“Hey, should we buy a weekend at the beach for our families?” my friend Sonia suggests.

“Excellent idea!” I lisp.

Our drink glasses are empty again—clearly they must be leaking—so I suggest a refill at the bar located conveniently nearby.

Then we notice that the beach house in Lewes, Del., sleeps 16. Sonia spots a friend across the room, and within 10 seconds, we’ve all decided to vacation together! We hug in delight, then introduce ourselves.
“Wait,” the friend says. “I promised my husband I wouldn’t bid on any out-of-town trips.”

“Pfffft,” we sputter. “The beach isn’t out of town! He meant trips to China.”

Inspired by that alcohol-fueled logic, we begin bidding. And bidding. Our husbands (the designated drivers) try to secure limits to our spending, but we brush them off with our new catchphrase: It’s for the children! We end up nabbing the beach trip by bidding roughly twice what our husbands suggested.

“This is going to be amazing!” I say to my new friend. She gives me an odd look, and I realize the woman I’ve just met is actually on my other side.

Suddenly I’m wondering what it will be like to spend four days with total strangers. But then I realize the auction has provided the answer: That martini pitcher will come in handy after all.

Sarah Pekkanen’s latest novel is The Best of Us (Washington Square Press, 2013). She can be reached at sarah.pekkanen@bethesdamagazine.com.