As surely as the swallows return to Capistrano, at the end of every summer parents and children find themselves wandering the wide aisles of discount stores, engaging in a time-honored annual ritual: buying school supplies.
Dwarfed by canyons of display walls bristling with scissors and protractors, steering shopping carts between teetering stacks of notebooks and white glue, they take their pick of a giddy variety of pens, pencils, notebooks and erasers as colorful and pretty as candy.
I have waited years to join them. To say that I enjoyed getting new school supplies every year when I was on the other side of the parental fence is a puny echo of the passionate truth.
I adored new school supplies. To me, they brought a dizzying variety of sensory delights, all wrapped up in the sense of promise in a new school year.
I loved the sweet smell of school glue; the blue-and-white paper on the inside of a new loose-leaf notebook, ready to be inscribed with 50 repetitions of the name of whatever boy I would have a crush on that year; and the squeak of a new eraser, pink as a baby pig, on my teeth as I chewed on it in class.
And who can forget the soft scritch scritch of a No. 2 pencil, sharpened to weapon status, against a clean piece of white lined paper?
I was so intoxicated by the feeling that I used to open stacks of loose-leaf paper in the store to make sure I chose one with just enough roughness to the finish to offer that delicious resistance.
There were decisions to be made, with one choice more marvelous than the one before. Spiral-bound or loose-leaf notebooks? One large loose-leaf or a different bright-colored plastic one for each subject?
And there was the lengthy and very pleasurable process of putting everything together. I would spend hours arranging the tab dividers in my loose-leaf notebook. Should I use the blue tab for science or social studies? Should I put English first because I liked it best, or should I try to jump-start myself in math by awarding it the prized first position?
Lest I have too much time on my hands for actual school preparation, I devised elaborate organizational systems. Some years I chose different colored pens for each section. Other years I differentiated by scent, using oppressively perfumed inks.
These delights would have been enough. But the annual purchase of new school supplies was also a tangible expression of the new school year’s offer of a figurative as well as literal clean slate.
Every fall was a new beginning; the year ahead was as unblemished and full of possibilities as a virgin box of crayons. The unpleasantries of the previous year - the cruel teacher, the mean former friend, the inability to figure out the right length for skirts - all disappeared with last year’s notebooks.
Fresh starts grow harder to come by as the years pass. They are to be prized, even if they come in the form of pen and paper.
And so it was with particular pleasure that I took my 6-year-old daughter on her first shopping trip for school supplies.
She got into the spirit right away, rushing past the plain notebooks to the ones decorated with licensed characters and costing three times as much.
Remembering my own joys, I indulged her every whim. We got the folder with the otter, the folder with the horse, the folder with the hummingbird. We got the blue-green scissors, the Pocahontas pencil case, the wildlife colors broad-tipped markers.
Somewhere midway between the glue sticks and the Pocahontas notebook, my daughter looked up at me in pre-first-grade wonderment.
“I didn’t know this was going to be so much fun,” she said.
From behind the shopping cart, I smiled with vicarious pleasure. Fall was here. I resolved to buy her a red plaid jumper.