With a grin and a shake of the head I read Maura Casey's recent editorial (NYTimes.com 09/04/06), "Back to School: Lists that Rival ‘War and Peace'". Ms. Casey was shopping for one 7th grader and she entered the store with a spread sheet and an open purse. For those of us who have (and are grateful for) a number of children to equip for school, we need a whole computer program. I think that Staples should offer personal shoppers.
Mixed with delight and relief on the first day of school -- a day of some ambivalence despite my many assertions that it couldn't come soon enough! -- is the fear of the dreaded school supply lists.
Page after page is presented to me. I have a system (sort of). I have an audience with each child individually where we go through the lists so that I can mark everything off by categories and not come home lacking that one extra box of reinforcements. A model of efficiency -- except that the lists don't all come on the same day. Yet when are the supplies needed? Usually yesterday.
Some teachers even penalize students who don't get their supplies on time. I've always thought this a curious practice. For 5th graders with no access to cars or credit cards, how are they to blame? They should be pitied for having such delinquent mothers.
All mothers of school-age children are hereby forewarned: do not make any evening plans for the first two weeks of school. You will be spending them all at your local school supply store. You will recognize other parents by the glazed look in their eyes.
When not out shopping for 3-hole punchers, 2-hole punches, 1-1/2- inch binders (woe to the cavalier parent who buys a 1-inch one instead) and mechanical pencils, all your remaining spare time will be devoted to homework.
Fearing that summer vacation has turned the children's brains to jelly (they have it backwards; it's the mother's brains that have liquefied), fearing being considered too permissive, the teachers hand out piles of homework at the beginning of the school year. Although the weather has not yet changed, the mindset certainly has.
Yet with all my griping (I'm not finished yet) I love the beginning of the school year. Not just because I no longer hear, "I'm bored, what should I do?" every 30 seconds. Not just because the towels aren't covered with sand, the table isn't strewn with cookie cutters and the wet clothes from the last water fight aren't lying on the kitchen floor.
Because it's exciting. New beginnings are very exciting. New opportunities to learn and be stimulated to learn more. My biggest complaint against the length of the summer break (I told you I wasn't finished yet) is that it wastes the opportunity of young, receptive minds.
Although they grumble slightly (perhaps I've set a bad example!), my children are also excited to start school. They like the new backpacks (hand-me-downs can be cleaned to look like new) and the fresh paper. They like seeing their friends. And even though they'll barely admit it, they like the learning.
A note in self-defense. It's not that they have had no formal and certainly informal learning opportunities over the summer. But they've missed the structure, the regularity, and yes, the intellectual stimulation. And that's the real reason I'm excited for them. There is so much more to learn, so many new discoveries to be made --and this is their chance.
While all learning, and particularly Torah learning, should never end, nothing replaces elementary school and high school, the days when few other cares occupy your mind and you can apply yourself fully to your studies. And a good game of dodge ball!
Days where they bring home questions about the parsha and insights about the holidays. Days where they work on visiting the sick, raising money for a bride and being kind to the new girl. Days of school plays and trips, of school spirit and the sense of a second family.
I'm a little jealous. But I'm very happy for them. And if school supplies are the price we have to pay (I forgot to mention lunches and carpool!) then it's worth it. Especially if I can send one of my older daughters to Staples for me...