Wednesday, August 13, 2014

let's talk about back-to-school shopping.

The end of summer is bittersweet. As soon as August hits, you blink and it’s fall. While fall is a lovely time in the Midwest, you know that six months of winter are right around the corner.

Once again, August is upon us, and I am begrudgingly trying to accept that summer is coming to its end. I am unhappy about this for a number of reasons:
  • I never get enough time at Lake Poinsett, and fall means that Lake Poinsett will have to wait until next summer.
  • No more summer shandy. Sure, I can buy a bunch at the end of the season and drink it all year, but it never tastes as good as when you’re sitting outside under a tree.
  • My summer tan (or, the best I can do for a tan) is kaput. I spend a few glorious months with skin that isn’t so pale that it’s see-through, and I am loathe to give that up.
  • James starts school again, so that means his amazingly productive summer days are over. I’ll have to start cleaning and doing laundry again, and he will no longer have time to build things like this door shelf.
  • All the festivals are over. My favorite – the Brookings Summer Arts Festival – was in mid-July. If you wanted to, you could find a festival to occupy every summer weekend. There are a few to look forward to in the fall (Oktoberfest!!!), but they don’t serve cheese curds.
  • Wearing tights is one of my least favorite things in the world, and the end of summer means the end of bare legs with my skirts and dresses. I also have to put away all of my sandals and get out my boots, which I am really not ready to do.
  • Did I mention Lake Poinsett?
Like most people in my neck of the woods, I have never looked forward to the end of summer. (Except for the summers I had a job mowing lawns and picking up dead fish at the Methodist Camp: I counted the days until school began. But that was the only time.) In my school days, I loved the freedom that came with not having to worry about classes or homework or any of that. Even when I had part-time summer jobs, I had all sorts of free time to hang out with my friends.

In elementary school, there was one end-of-summer event that I looked forward to, even though it meant that my carefree days would soon be over.

And that was school supply shopping.

The most exciting summer for school supply shopping was, of course, the summer before I entered kindergarten. I hadn’t attended preschool, so I was building my school supply collection from the ground up. My favorite color was red, so my first pair of scissors was a pair of red-handled Fiskars (which I still have to this day). I got to take home wonderfully exciting things like a brand-new box of crayons, washable markers, Elmer’s glue (I started kindergarten in 1992, and at that time, you could get Elmer’s glue in neon pink and neon orange – which I totally talked my mother into), gym shoes, and two boxes of Kleenex. My parents had given me a personalized red pencil box in which to store my loot, and it felt like I had won the school supply jackpot.

I had discovered the magic of school supply shopping. I had so enjoyed perusing the aisle at Walmart for the perfect Pink Pearl eraser that I couldn’t wait to do it again at the beginning of each school year. I would eagerly watch the mail for the school supply list to arrive, and when it did, I would incessantly bug Mom about when we were going to go shopping.

If Mom was too busy to take me school supply shopping, Grandma Lorraine was the substitute school supply shopper. Going school supply shopping with Grandma Lorraine was the BEST – she would say yes to all sorts of things that Mom would say no to, and we were almost guaranteed to get ice cream afterwards.

Grandma Lorraine, a former teacher, would often tut-tut over all the things kids these days “needed” for elementary school. However, when I had my eye on the more expensive Lisa Frank folders versus the plain penny folders, Grandma could always be counted on to spring for Lisa Frank.

Unicorns and all.
She would also let me have the box of 24 Crayola crayons when the school supply list suggested that I only needed the box of 16.

Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy school supply shopping with Mom. School supply shopping with Mom usually meant getting to go to exotic Watertown (which meant Target instead of Walmart!) instead of the usual trip to Brookings. However, when I would present Mom with a box of new colored pencils, she would usually say, “What’s wrong with your colored pencils from last year?” Mom didn’t seem to get that the colored pencils from last year were far inferior, as they had already been through one whole school year and were all broken and snaggly from the wall-mounted school pencil sharpeners. Grandma, on the other hand, asked no questions and tossed those colored pencils right into her shopping cart.

Inevitably, I would show up to school to find out that I had completely missed some major school supply trend. Remember those scented markers? I’d walked right by them, so I had to be content sniffing the communal classroom markers. (Same thing goes with scented crayons. Those were weird and didn’t color well, but you could make your illustrations smell like grass and sky.) There was always some cool new glue stick or must-have colorful eraser that I had blindly passed, so I’d make a mental note of it for next year… but predictably, those super cool school supplies of the previous year were now passé. You couldn’t be caught dead with scented crayons after third grade.

Though scented crayons were not one of them, there were a few things that were specifically outlawed on the school supply list. Gym shoes with black soles were banned, as they would leave black marks on the gymnasium floor. There was an explosion of gel pen popularity in the late 90s, and soon there was a notation on our supply lists that we were not to bring any pens that were not blue, black, or red. We were eventually asked to bring binders, but Trapper Keepers were forbidden. (I still have yet to figure out what exactly was so evil about Trapper Keepers.)

Back to school shopping had never really involved buying new clothing. Mom would bring me a new outfit from time to time, and my idea of really big back-to-school excitement was getting to choose a new pair of glasses. But I was never a part of the big back-to-school clothing hullaballoo that I first witnessed while working in retail. Parents would come in and spend big bucks on their growly teenage children, and that would only be one stop in their long quest for a new school wardrobe. Just a drop in the gigantic back-to-school bucket.

I did get to pick out one outfit specifically to wear back to school. It was 1997, and I was entering the fifth grade. For some reason, the color lime green had made a gigantic comeback, and it was the trendiest color a ten-year-old could wear. I was spending the day in Brookings with Grandma Lorraine, and she took me to the Brookings Mall. At that time, the Brookings Mall still had a Vanity, and I made a beeline for it. I resurfaced with a pair of lime green overalls – and they were SHORTS, no less. Grandma knew my favorite color was lime green, so she offered to buy me the overalls – and not just the overalls, but a shirt lined in lime green flowers to go with it. And it didn’t stop there. We went to the local Kmart (when Brookings still had a Kmart) and emerged with a pair of lime green fake Keds. That was my favorite outfit all year – you can even find it in my official fifth grade school portrait.

As I grew older, my school supply list grew shorter and began to evolve into less-fun supplies. I no longer needed my Crayola markers and pencil box, but I did need rubber cement and a calculator. I was too old to buy the fun folders anymore, and suddenly, Five-Star brand notebooks were a big deal. You weren’t cool unless you had the right type of pen, and you had better have a highlighter in every color of the rainbow.

When I entered junior high school, the school supply list disappeared altogether. You were expected to show up with pencils, pens, and notebooks. This was a huge let-down: I had aged out of school supply shopping. I went just the same and got a brand new notebook (college ruled, of course) every year. True to form, I could usually finagle myself a new backpack or fresh batch of Sharpies.

College school supply shopping was a whole new ball game. As far as REAL school supplies went, I only really needed pens, pencils, and notebooks – just like junior high and high school. However, as I was moving into a dorm, I also needed things like laundry detergent and sheets. College school supply shopping was much scarier than the school supply shopping I remembered. After all, I would soon be expected to buy my own cereal and shampoo, let alone my notebooks and pens and pencils.

I have been out of college for a while now (read: five years), so I have not graced the back-to-school section in quite some time. However, whenever I walk into a store during back-to-school season and see that familiar tower with school supply lists from area schools, I feel a small twinge of jealousy. The days of joyously picking out my pencils and glue for a new school year are gone. But even though I don’t have a school to go back to, I could take myself for a spin through the back-to-school aisles and relive a little bit of the old excitement: when the littlest things made you the happiest. When the possibilities were endless and you knew this was going to be the best school year EVER. And maybe I’ll even pick up a thing or two. After all, I could really use some snazzy new folders.
A Lisa Frank fortune teller pig folder, perhaps?

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