Back to School BluesAugust arrived, often with some of the hottest days of summer, but nights were cool, just in time to leave us dripping and shivering on the edge of the SportCenter pool, where our mother had signed us up for late summer swimming lessons.
We whined in the back seat to stop for ice cream, but our hearts weren’t in it. It was, well, it was just old hat, summer was old hat, and we mostly just liked to whine in a mindless, directionless way. There might be some watermelon at home, but by now it was less sweet, more pithy, less lovely than the first one of summer.
We had gathered around our mother wielding a carving knife then, overly excited and hopping up and down, peering into the deep gash she created as we listened for the crack of the rind parting from the wound, and the innards ruby red and thrilling. I thought maybe lungs looked like that. But only for a moment. Otherwise the image might have kept me from fighting over the largest slice, kept me from the bliss of it, the sticky juice running down my chin, the pink chunks falling on my shirt, which I picked off and ate.
School didn’t start until after Labor Day, a nice, long August to grow mind-numbingly bored, so bored that the idea of school was a welcome relief. There were no more Nancy Drews to read, no more dusty games of baseball. Cleaning our rooms to get ready for fall was the stupidest thing I had ever heard my mother utter. She made me dust the baseboards, then, all of them, but I showed her. I started in the living room—the one room in the house she kept nice for “company”—where I crawled behind the sofa as if to dust, and promptly fell asleep.
But school was still far away, or felt as if it was, and the last days were spent in idle anticipation, a little like being packed for a trip a week early, and all you do is sit around and check your watch, look at your luggage, wander to the window and wonder when the cab will come.
There was an orientation day, as I remember, when kids met their new teachers and parents received the supply list. Everyone headed to the Ben Franklin, ON THAT DAY, to pick up cellophane-wrapped packages of paper, pencils and crayons, notebooks and fancy binders. I always required a new pencil box, with a compass and protractor, the latter a tool I had no idea how to use or what it was for. (Determining angles, it turns out, a skill I have never required in all my years of living.)
It never rained on the first day of school, which seems extraordinary to me. We have years of pictures my dad took of us standing in the alley and squinting at the camera, with new book satchels and new shoes, just before we walked the five blocks to school. In a few feet from the picture-taking spot, my older brother will peel off from the group and act like he doesn’t know us. A middle child will exert authority, or try to, over a younger child, by grabbing his hand, which will be wrenched away. Words will ensue.
That’s about all I remember. Walking to school on the first day, then a week later and it was if I had never left, so quickly does a new routine become, well, routine.
I will pass a high school on my way to work this morning. The parking lot will be full, and the halls will be loud, crackling with “first day back” jitters, kids in wrong rooms, lost freshmen, faculty plastering on happy, friendly faces. I wish them all well, and also the other students returning to classes all over town.
But, even more, I wish for them a few more weeks of freedom, a September start to the school year. It’s an old-fashioned notion, I know, and one that doesn’t have much relevance to the way we live and work now. But give me a cool morning in early September, new shoes and sharp crayons, and everything, all of it, right there, in front of me. I can work with that. Make something of it. A clear ending and new beginning that the weather and calendar reinforces.
None of this mid-month, still summer business. But September, finally, and fall.