The Back-to-School Build Up

I love that old Staples commercial that shows a father gleefully filling a shopping cart with school supplies, kicking his heels to the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” while his kids mope along behind. I, too, am always happy to see them go back, even though it means a return to the relentless cycle of activity–football, guitar, soccer, band practice, Hebrew school, homework, saxophone–that has come to define modern family life. Even so, by the time we get through preparing for the new school year, I’m already so exhausted and broke that I just want to put them on the bus so I can crawl back under the covers. The big hurdles of August:

1. Shopping for School Supplies: The Staples commercial notwithstanding, buying school supplies is a lot like The Amazing Race with mechanical pencils. Parents and kids clutching xeroxed lists mow one another down in hot pursuit of glue sticks and the correct color one-inch three-ring binder. The specifications are military-like: two pocket folders, no trapper keepers (whatever those are); 300 sheets white-lined, college-ruled loose leaf paper. For my son, a rising 8th grader, I could have ordered the supplies through the middle school in June–at a cut-rate price, too–but that would have required not losing the paper that explained what to do. At Staples, while I helped my 4th grader navigate the mind-numbing array of Post-It notes, my son collected his own gear. When he was about 90 percent finished, he realized he’d been following the 7th grade list, and had to put everything back and start over–providing excellent fodder for those who believe students regress over the summer and should go to school year round. At about this time every August, I begin to see their point.

2. Summer Reading: When that book list comes home in June, it appears so full of  promise–enchanting titles to be enjoyed curled up on the couch with a glass of lemonade, or stretched out on a towel between rounds of Marco Polo. Now it just seems like a prison sentence. Naturally, I have been nagging them for weeks to tackle the summer reading–“Just one chapter a day!”–so they’re not stuck cramming it all in over Labor Day weekend. Alas, the books sit, unopened, in a pile … somewhere. Of course it signals my failure as a parent: words are my life! My livelihood! How I met their father (he was my editor at Newsweek)! Yet only one of the three–the eldest–actually considers reading anything other than a chore.

3. New Clothes: When I was a kid, back-to-school clothes shopping was a revered late summer tradition that my mother and I shared with my best friend and her mother. It involved a day-long trip to Bloomingdale’s in Stamford, complete with lunch. But thanks to years of sweltering through the first few days of school in new woolen sweaters and skirts–in fall colors!–I know that my children need nothing new at least until mid-October. Their ratty old shorts and t-shirts will work just fine for the first few weeks. However, that doesn’t stop them–the girls, at least–from craving something new to wear. I understand that. Luckily, there is Old Navy, land of the colorful $6 t-shirts and $19 “Uggs.” As for my son, the only one who actually needs anything new–he shot up six inches in the past year and his feet have grown a full shoe size since May–“shopping” means pawing through a bag of clothes mysteriously deposited on his bed. The ones that end up strewn across the floor are the keepers; the rejects remain in the bag for me to return to Kohl’s.

4. Paperwork: Every year I get the exact same forms from each school–asking for phone numbers, allergies, doctors’ names, emergency contacts–and every year I fill them out exactly the same way. I know I complained about this back when I was completing camp forms (see “June is the Cruelest Month“) but couldn’t they just keep last year’s form on file, and ask parents to fill out a new one only if there are changes? Better yet, isn’t there some universal electronic version we could zap to every school? Also, August is not the time to inform me that the nurse will be conducting vision, hearing and posture screenings later in the year. It’s not like I’m going to start making the kids walk around with books on their heads, although I suppose that’s as good a use as any for their summer reading material.

5. “I’m bored”: No matter how many fun-filled weeks my kids have spent at camp, no matter how much swimming or ice cream or water balloon tossing or zip-lining they have enjoyed, there inevitably comes a time in mid-August when they start complaining there is nothing to do. I have little patience for this. I am not bored. I still have work to complete, errands to run, forms to fill out. My suggestions that they clean their rooms, organize their school supplies or read the damned book are met with snickers–“We want to do something fun!”–and succeed only in creating children who are both bored and irritated at me. But I know I’ll be vindicated when September 6 rolls around, and they realize they have only one person to blame for their failure to finish the summer reading. Then they’ll blame me anyway.

About Susan H. Greenberg

Susan H. Greenberg spent 22 years as a journalist for Newsweek Magazine. She now works as a writer, editor, teacher, and parent of three children, with whom she strives always to maintain a varnish-free relationship.
This entry was posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, Working motherhood and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Back-to-School Build Up

  1. kherbert says:

    Don’t blame the schools for the paper work. If you want to change it look into your state laws. At my campus the parent contact information is rarely good after the 1st month. We have had kids spiking 104 fevers, having asthma attacks, or broken bones and no good numbers.

  2. Olivia says:

    It’s incredibly entertaining reading about all of this from an adult’s perspective, yet for some reason I want to address each of the points on the list from my own.

    1. For some bizarre reason, school supply shopping is the thing I look forward to all summer. Even though I’ve gotten to the point where literally all I need is more looseleaf paper, the mere thought makes me incredibly excited.

    2. I have never had summer reading. Up until this year, being completely swamped with book club books (as a club we have to get through every Young Adult novel published in 2011), I have _wished_ for it, as much of a nerd as that undoubtedly makes me. I have 63 books under my belt so far this year, and way too many more that I want to (and have to) add to that number.

    3. Being a teenage girl…Yep. We’re going shopping next weekend. *yay*

    4. This part made me laugh, because my mom’s yearly complaint is how she signs about 50 forms between her three daughters within the first two days of school.

    5. So when you parents suggest we do chores when we’re bored…you’re serious? You’re not just trying to be irritating? xD But honestly..oh, to be bored! I’ve kept myself thoroughly swamped all summer. I miss complaining and hearing the always-loved “Well, how about you wash dishes, then?”

    • Olivia, thanks for responding! We parents are /not/ actually serious when we suggest chores… but it seems appropriate penance for anybody who dares whine about being bored! Anyway you seem like you have a great attitude and a very sensible head on your shoulders… so have fun back-to-school shopping! And if you happen to read “Touching Spirit Bear,” would you mind telling my son what it’s about?

  3. Linda Flanagan says:

    You nailed it once again, Sue. Great article!

  4. Bill Wall says:

    Threaten home schooling if they don’t read the books. That will send them hurtling up the stairs to dig out the list and find the book. Guaranteed. Of course, use that card sparingly, lest they call your bluff. Then you’ll discover true misery!

  5. Amanda says:

    Aww, trapper keepers! I was in elementary school using those in the late 80s/early 90s and just saying the words “trapper keeper” makes me nostalgic. To be honest, I’m finding it hard to describe it properly, so I’ll just link to the wikipedia page for it ( ), but what I do remember was that the designs on them were totally cool (for elementary school kids) so every year, you had to make sure you had the perfect one to showcase your personality.

  6. Jenn says:

    Hey Sue!

    You and I must have crossed paths in Stamford at Bloomingdales boy’s department where i picked out my corduroys! Can’t imagine you in anything else!

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