I am in a mild panic. As I write this, only two weeks remain till the first day of school. The stern immunization reminders and cheery meet-the-teacher postcards are accumulating on all available surfaces, and by the time you read this, the Big Day will be upon us.
It’s not the whole mandate to go on an economy-stimulating, back-to-school shopping frenzy that’s got me rattled. I’ve already ordered a new backpack and lunchbox for my soon-to-be first grader, since I’d gleefully chucked her grimy old ones on the last day of kindergarten. And I’m immune to the charms of the catalogs crowding my mailbox, their glossy pages filled with darling schoolgirls in pea coats and turtlenecks, woolly tights and tall boots. This is San Antonio, and my kids will be wearing their preferred summer attire — sundresses, T-shirts, cotton skirts — until November, at least.
School supplies are also not a problem. One valuable lesson I learned during my first year as the parent of a school-age child is that if your institution offers to procure the supplies for you in exchange for a $38 check, write the damn check. Don’t get caught up in some nostalgic fantasy involving you and your kid bonding over new Trapper Keepers and cute pencil cases. That notion is quaint at best nowadays, when public-school budgets are stretched to the limit and parents must buy many of the barest necessities: Pencils, glue, boxes of Kleenex, and Ziploc bags figured prominently on my daughter’s kindergarten list, which I didn’t bother perusing till the last minute. At which point I abandoned my vision of taking my highly opinionated 5-year-old aesthete on a mommy-daughter shopping trip. Classic number 2 pencils would be pronounced “ugly.” Why couldn’t she get the glitter-heart pencils with marabou plumes? Why buy an eight-count box of Crayola when you can get 64? And does that Mead composition book only come in black-and-white? I ended up devoting a Saturday morning to the dreary task, working my way through Target, OfficeMax, and H-E-B until I’d gathered everything she needed. Amazingly, it took all three stores to assemble the necessary pocket folders (with brads!) in the requisite color combination.
So if I’ve got the whole consumer angle in hand, why the end-of-summer anxiety? Well, like all the best stories, this one begins with me cleaning out a file drawer. Amid a sheaf of last year’s school paperwork, I found a parting letter from our kindergarten teacher in which she listed suggestions for keeping kids sharp over vacation. She urged us to maintain book logs, make reward charts, memorize “words of the week.” To practice counting in the car, the checkout line. That way, our kids wouldn’t suffer the dreaded backward slide as they’re freed from the shackles of daily drills, endless worksheets, and homework assignments. She even gave us a couple of workbooks to aid in our summer study. And I distinctly remembered putting them ... somewhere. Oops. I had a sinking feeling that I’d just squandered almost 80 days of summer vacation on the kind of lazy hazy frivolity I recall from my ’70s youth, back when the Overscheduled Child wasn’t even a glimmer in his Helicopter Parent’s eye.
One of the teacher’s recommendations was for kids to keep a calendar and cross off each passing day. We’d done that throughout the year, though we weren’t super-vigilant, especially when summer started. I’ve always found something a little morbid about people crossing off days — like they’re counting down to the end. Doubtless that’s just a function of age. When you’re only 6, you’re in a hurry for the days to pass, so you can be taller, stronger, stay up later. So you can get a bigger allowance, a driver’s license, the right to buy your own booze ... But when you’re old enough to see the folly in hurrying, you just want your kids to chill. Because one day they’ll look back on the summer they were 6 with longing. Call it sentimentality, nostalgia, an oversimplified rose-colored mis-remembrance of things past, but I want my kids to be able to say, Remember that summer? When we found the baby bunny and kept it in a cardboard box? When we swam every day and ate lunch nekkid? Not: Remember the summer I learned how to count by fives backwards and earned 50 stickers and an ice-cream cone for reading three-dozen books?
Only two more weeks to go, 14 boxes to cross off … I think I’ll hide the calendar.