When I was younger, one of my favorite parts of summer was the end, when it was time for back to school shopping. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the school break, but I was a through and through nerd whose love of learning trumped my social anxieties. Back to school shopping meant the possibility of returning to the classroom a more sophisticated, self-assured, and above all, well-prepared kid than when my classmates had last seen me.
My mother and I had our back to school shopping ritual set. At the end of a long summer week at work, she would take me to the nearby office supply store decked out in banners and signs announcing their back to school deals. We’d grab a shopping cart and set down each aisle one at a time, shopping list in hand and dreams of reinvention in my mind. Similar to the thrill I now get from online shopping, back to school shopping was my first taste of invigorating consumerism. Which folders should I get? Which five-subject notebooks? And above all — the one item that would decide my student identity — which backpack felt the most me, or at least the me I wanted to be?
It was the same feeling my fifth grade D.A.R.E. teacher told us you could get from drugs and alcohol, but school sanctioned.
One year, it was a glossy Barbie model; another year, the all-too-nerdy rolling variety; for most years, a sporty blue kind with a bunch of pockets and secret compartments I would enjoy but not really need. My mother expertly hid whatever pressure she may have felt about paying for these school supplies each year, encouraging me to get whatever sparkly, TV show branded pencils I suddenly desired. We’d talk about what I’d learn that year, who my teachers would be, looking forward together as we pushed the cart through the aisles.
There was something wonderfully symbolic about preparing for the next stage in life a new grade represented, but the experience itself was intoxicating, too. The bright lights, that plastic swirled with wood aroma, the groups of other shoppers circling around, ready to pounce on the last Lisa Frank pen pouch or two-pocket folder with the psychedelic designs, the air conditioning. It was the same feeling my fifth grade D.A.R.E. teacher told us you could get from drugs and alcohol, but school sanctioned.
After finally making our way through every row, save those reserved for the trappings of grown up office life, my mother and I would go through our cart making sure we got everything the school said we needed before loading my new haul carefully onto the checkout belt. Once home, I’d sit on the floor of my room, taking each item out of its packaging, getting my backpack ready for a first day of school still several days away. Over the next several months these supplies would see me through all of the joys, frustrations, and heartaches the next several months in school promised. The same time a year later, I’d do it all again.
It’s been a while since I regularly had three-month long summer breaks. But that day in August when I am battered with back-to-school sale advertising still arrives each year. They’re still as urgent as ever, though no longer matched by the urgency, anxiety, and hopefulness of another school year. Still, I can recreate the feeling when the mood hits. I need a box of highlighters, I’ll decide, and use it as an excuse to stock up on pens and construction paper and paper clips and maybe a ruler, too, whether I need them or not. I can’t walk past a stack of notebooks without contemplating the purchase, if they have the features of the kind I like. As an adult, you’re no longer tethered to something as basic as a list, made by a responsible teacher. You can do whatever you want.
As vapid as it is, I look back fondly on participating in this capitalistic tradition. I miss the promise of growth and renewal it represented, now replaced with other rituals like bleaching your hair or getting a new tattoo. There are so many things I don’t miss about being a kid in school, but this isn’t one of them.