Our Lives

Our Lives: The return of back to school

CorrespondentSeptember 7, 2013 


John Valentine

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

The above-ground Back to School craziness may be waning, but its rippling effect in every part of our lives is just starting to sink in. We’re in for the long haul, barely on board for this season’s thrill ride. Ready for the expected and the unexpected.

Like the song says, “Just hold on loosely, but don’t let go.” With summer firmly in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to maintain some kind of focus and sense of humor. Look around you, if it’s any solace. Each of us is entering the Seasonal Affective Disorder zone, stage one. There are many signs, symptoms and side effects.

Part dread, part contagious giddy excitement, part head down, we’ve been here before. These few weeks, on the cusp of sleeping in and setting the alarm clock 30 minutes earlier to get it all done, are a test of wills for every one of us, for every household.

Back-to-School, or BTS in the ad biz, isn’t about those glossy drop-in flyers in today’s paper, or racing to get the latest must-have fashionista backpack or TV tie-in lunch box. In the heat of the buying, stocking up moment, as gotta-haves are flying off the shelves before your eyes, it does get hot. But be calm, use your inside voice, explain retail-restocking theory and just say, “We’ll see.”

Back to School is that tectonic seismic shift that starts slowly and then accelerates this time of year. That first cool, freakish dawn in August is a teaser. That first panicky “Hey, where’s my jacket?” phone call and the morning you wake up wondering if the heater will come on are the reality checks, the markers that if you haven’t already, today would be a good day to make a serious to-do list.

Remember those soggy, sticky early days of August, when the summer nights went on forever? Did we eat ice cream every night? By the end of this month, we’ll have lost two hours of that magical, stress-reducing daylight.

The garden, once a gleeful destination of casually twisting rogue vegetable vines, now looks more like a cutting-floor scene, in stark, vicious morning light in “The Hangover, Part 3.” The sunrise, once worshiped by all, is only noticed now as a reflection in the mirror as we help with our child’s hair.

My kids’ teachers used to talk about the three-week honeymoon period. That’s just about where we are now for some local schools. At three weeks, the kids have worn all their new clothes, talked about and forgotten summer vacation, made some new friends, had a few tiffs and tears on the playground and, OMG, just realized they are several days and pages behind on that reading assignment.

And they’re exhausted. Parents, too. New meal patterns, frequent discussions about phone time/screen time/bedtime, and this is just the beginning. Is that summer song harmony that much in the past? Yup, we’ve all collectively turned that corner. Might as well lock down the flip-flops. Get some serious cold weather footwear for the puddles on the horizon.

My oldest daughter had one memorable back-to-school moment entering middle school. She was ready to reinvent herself the way all middle schoolers anticipate that new year. Bouncing into the classroom (I’m sure she had a new haircut, too) who does she see? Her old kindergarten teacher! She’d decided to reinvent herself, too! So there they were, teacher and pupil, five years later, together again. There are no secrets.

School supplies were always my assignment. My wife still teases me for the sentimental shoeboxes she keeps finding, half full of colored markers and dried-up gel pens, all sorted by size. But the kids were good shoppers; they knew what they wanted. We had a budget, we made specific lists (though as they got older, those want/need lists became much more negotiable). I remember one frantic Saturday in the downtown Pasadena Target trying to locate that last $10 wall mirror in all of Los Angeles for a freshman dorm room.

For me the most poignant image of Back to School is repeated each morning out my car window, like a silent movie, a half-dozen times on Craig Road, on Cole Mill Road, on Broad Street as I drive to work behind weaving parades of school buses. A parent holds a child’s hand at the edge of the sidewalk. The child skips away, backpack bouncing, and runs to the bright yellow bus. The parent waves, turns and walks back alone, to continue on with the day, fingers crossed for the child’s safety and happiness.

September isn’t July, so we roll with the changes. Firmer schedules and routines order our days. Long sleeves replace short sleeves. Summer’s mantras of “Drink water” and “Don’t forget sunscreen” are replaced by “Homework first” and “Wear layers.” We may even find ourselves flipping the calendar forward a month or two, looking for those cherished long weekends.


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