Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Back to School Shopping

Welcome to September—to the U.S. Open, to crisper air and lengthening shadows, to a return to routines, and above all . . . back to school. Although my own son is still enjoying the liberty of summer vacation (why is Labor Day so late this year?!), we've already done a bit of shopping to get ready for the upcoming term: some tan corduroys, two pairs of shoes, new pens and pencils and composition books and flash cards. It's a ritual I love, always have: unsharpened pencils and unsullied erasers equal a seductive, if fleeting, perfection. The new academic year holds so much potential, be it for high marks or team tryouts, or else a respite from whatever social tyranny dogged the previous year (because when the newness of the year wears off, the drama tends to set in—and I'm not talking about the school play!). Here is what I remember most about back-to-school shopping from my own childhood: First, new markers and glue; three-ring binders (that ubiquitous scratchy blue kind that looked like denim and that the kids all drew on with black Sharpies); filler paper, reinforcements; Hello Kitty pencil cases with matching erasers and sharpeners. Next, during early-grade years in Chicago, I remember the brown penny loafers I got each year and how the uppers were incredibly stiff and the soles dangerously slippery in their pristine, unscuffed state; they smelled like tanned and polished hide, and my mom always made sure to find the newest, shiniest copper to tuck into them for luck. Skirts and jumpers in studious fall colors and tweedy materials. Later, during middle school years in Los Angeles, the clothes shopping got more sophisticated. I recall how, in one trendy Brentwood store, my mother asked the salesperson if there were any clothes anymore that had the labels on the inside. I got my first lesson in marketing and free advertising on the ride home: why should we pay extra for a status label that everyone can see? They should pay us to be walking billboards for their companies, except forget it, we weren't buying. She was right, really. And I accepted this, agreed with it—not in small part because when it came to self-expression, my mom was easy. My mother encouraged me to experiment with fashion, and for an acceptable budget I got to test out fads and create my own looks, no matter how ridiculous. The fall season I will never forget? The year of the knickers. Not English knickers—which of course I now know are undergarments—but those button-below-the-knee, puffy ragamuffin half-pants that for some reason were the hot ticket for back-to-school that year. I had two pairs: woolly dark gray and (major confession here), lavender corduroy. God were they awful, but I wanted them, wore them . . . and somehow never managed to pull off the look the way the popular girls did. Oh well. By the time I was in high school, the back-to-school routine was different, more serious, involving laundry bags and lamps, bedding and a footlocker, along with the usual supplies. Because it was boarding school, back-to-school began to mean good-byes. At that age, a push-and-pull sensation of dizzying independence and anxious leave-taking overtook me toward the end of each summer. And then for many years— nothing. Entering the working world, I forgot about back-to-school; September no longer brought a Pavlovian trip to the stationery store. And I didn't realize that I missed it. Now, though, taking my son by the hand and watching him walk out of the shoe store, mesmerized by his own feet, I get this jolt of vicarious newness, too. I, too, feel a bounce in my step and a thrilling curiosity: what new path, what momentary triumph of perfection and promise, awaits us this year? The pencils are new, the notebooks unmarred by messy handwriting and spelling mistakes (though I've already put correction fluid into my 2009-2010 planner), and yet I know full well that if we are to learn and grow, nothing will stay that way. And really, that's okay, too. Let the school year begin!

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