Offsprung

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Every rite of passage begins with the ritual of shopping. Heading off to college? You’re going to need some dorm room furnishings. New job? New clothes. Getting married? Martha Stewart will tell you what to buy, starting with a subscription to her Weddings magazine. Expecting your first baby? Time to take those first tentative steps down the abundant aisles of Babies-R-Us. And if it’s any time between Fourth of July and Labor Day . . . well, fellow parents, I don’t need to tell you. Back-to-school shopping, people!

Up until now, my kids have only attended preschool. Back-to-school shopping for me usually means grabbing up a basket full of $3.00 doesn’t-matter-if-they-spill-paint-all-over-’em shirts from Value Village. But this year, The Boy is about to start kindergarten.

Was kindergarten such a big deal when we were kids? If it was, the adults did a nice job shielding us from it, because I do not remember this level of drama around the ritual. But here we are. I spent much of last year fretting about which public school The Boy would attend. Now that we somehow managed to draw a lucky number in the city’s school lottery and end up at the Very Special Alternative School, there’s buzzing in the grapevine that the VSAS might be closing someday. Or, if it stays open, younger siblings may not be guaranteed a spot. (I have no idea whether there’s any truth to these rumors, but I’m doing my best to ignore them. So far.)

Meanwhile, the kids have concerns of their own. We recently attended one of those getting-to-know-you summer playdates at the VSAS playground. While we parents traded tinfoil-hat theories about school closings, the kids were sizing each other up. Who’s going to be the new alpha? The second in command? The Boy tried to get in with some bigger, tougher kids at first, but they weren’t having it. I had a proud moment when he remarked with disgust “It’s a little crowded here” and, like Bart in search of his Millhouse, left the power struggle scene to go play with another boy.

I can only hope he’ll handle every social challenge as gracefully as that one, but I know he won’t. He’s only five, after all. There will be mistakes. There will be tears. Maybe even fights. Very Special School or not, it’s a jungle out there. Even under the best of circumstances, school is really just a big pit of kids being assholes to each other much of the time. We all know it, we all remember our time in that pit, but most of us send our kids right back into it anyway, swallowing the lumps in our throats and hoping for the best.

And so . . . we shop. What better way to combat fear of the unknown than shopping? Shopping breaks the future down into small, manageable, brightly-colored material units. It gives us a rose-colored glimpse of what the new life might look like. A cart full of shiny new school supplies creates the happy illusion of a wonderful school year ahead. How much easier it is to imagine your child in the school cafeteria when you look at that beloved new High School Musical lunchbox. We don’t consciously believe it’s so simple, of course. But there’s a subtle, subconscious reassurance in acquiring the right supplies.

The reassurance is not just in the goods themselves, but in the process of acquiring them. In the face of uncertainty, shopping is one clear, definitive action that you can take. You can’t be there in math class when your child doesn’t know the answer. But damn it, you can buy that slide rule!

Although . . . even the shopping can be a little disheartening. All those movie-and-TV-show-promoting, non-gender-neutral backpacks and lunchboxes. These items can be big signifiers for the kids, but the choices are so limited. If your child’s not a fan of current mainstream kid pop culture, you’re probably SOL. And even if you do manage to find a backpack that meets your child’s more eclectic taste on the Internets or at a yard sale or some such, your child may still turn it down in favor of conformity. “Transformers is what the store sells, so Transformers is what I’m supposed to like.” Marketing is powerful.

My sister tried to persuade her son to choose this beautiful Crocodile Creek lunchbox. The kid’s loved outer space since he knew how to say the words. Seemed like a perfect choice:

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But no. He had his heart set on a Spiderman lunchbox from Target instead. Which is fine, of course, but why the big hurry to eschew whimsically cute planets for tough-guy superheroes? I mean, come on dude. You’re five.

Which, I suppose, is what’s really at the heart of our back-to-school melancholy. With each new year there’s a little more unraveling of the childhood, moving them further away from the innocent little dumplings they once were into a world of Clone Wars and Hannah Montana. Each year, peer influence is just a tiny bit stronger. Each year, they test the boundaries a little more, striving toward independence, determined to make their own mistakes. And make mistakes they shall, despite our best efforts. Mistakes are an important part of the process.

So what do we do? We buy them some pencils and some new shoes, give them a hug, and send them on their way. And hope for the best.

Views: 30

Tags: Back to school, backpack, kindergarten, lunchbox, product placement, shopping

Comment by Teacher Tom on August 31, 2009 at 6:46am
Arg! You're so right. Maybe that's why I dread every rite of passage so much -- there's always a damn shopping trip involved!

I hate shopping under any circumstances (I put it in the category of necessary evils -- like mowing the lawn), but I now have a middle schooler and the back-to-school shopping thing is out of control. This year, for the first time, we just gave her cash and said, "When it's gone, it's gone." She spent over half of it on a single "status" item, then did a brilliant job of stretching the rest for t-shirts, etc.

I don't think I'll ever be able to look at shopping -- back to school or otherwise -- as in any way therapeutic, but I can see how others might. Just leave me at home. =)
Comment by StitchyWench on August 31, 2009 at 8:21am
I absolutely hate malls with a passion. Yet we go back to school shopping every year. This year was particularly traumatic for me because my daughter is enormously hugely big. She is over 5 feet tall, we can now share shoes, and she officially is very limited in what she can buy and chidlren's stores. I realized as we were shopping that I can now officially take her to all of my favorite stores to shop and she can try on any xs (sometimes small) in the store and look awesomely cute in it.

I just couldn't do it. I couldn't bring myself to take my daughter to my stores, so instead I took her to the mall (where I'd rather die than shop for myself). I despise the name brand on my shirt stores like American Apparel, Abercrombie, Aeropostle, etc. so instead I took her to XXI, and good lord I helped my girl sort through the stacks of inappropriate and lead her to some exceptionally adorable things. But you have no clue how hard this was. I looked around at all the teens who are shorter or just as tall as my girl and I thought, "How did this happen?"

It seems like not that long ago she was a tiny little mommies girl who was tied to my hip. Now she's this big emotional tween.
Comment by Daddy Geek Boy on August 31, 2009 at 9:49am
When I was a kid, I loved, loved, loved getting new school supplies. Never thought about how my mom may have felt about it (isn't that the kid way?). All I knew is that heading to school with fresh pencils and a new Trapper Keeper kept me excited.
Comment by Alan on September 1, 2009 at 12:44pm
Even now at my advanced age I get chills hearing the phrase 'back to school.' It meant summer is almost over and I had to go back to that unpleasant grind...
Comment by G to the G on September 1, 2009 at 12:59pm
dude, trapper keepers! i can remember a blow out with my mom because *GASP* she wanted me to use the same one from last year!
Comment by Teacher Tom on September 1, 2009 at 1:54pm
Did anyone else use Pee Chee folders? My parents must have been thrilled that those were the rage in my middle school because as the name implies (Pee Chee = Chee Pee) they only cost a few cents apiece.

I took my girl back to school supply shopping today. Her books cost well over $200 (private school). I think she felt guilty so she willingly went with the basic model of everything else.
Comment by Floor Pie on September 1, 2009 at 3:04pm
Tom, my husband reminisces fondly about Pee Chees, too. I never heard of them before. Is it a Northwest thing? We had those brown paper book covers with Thomas Jefferson on the cover. I remember those vividly.
Comment by Mamawho on September 2, 2009 at 7:00am
GirlWho started public school in Pre-K, so we've survived 4 back-to-school shopping trips now. I decided before the first one that character lunch boxes and backpacks would be allowed, but I got veto power. I pick several, she chooses from those. We allow very few character things, so this is a BIG deal. This year was Hello Kitty, which she could have all over everything for all I care, because I love Sanrio. But don't tell her. K?

But we have lucked out - all of her schools, every year, have demanded that all supplies be generic - no pictures, no characters. Sweet.

A bonus - GW's birthday is 8/17. She gets back-to-school clothes for her birthday, which she thinks is great. I know that won't last long.

TT - I went to private school through 9th grade. My books were as much as they were in college. And the school got new ones every year, so there were never any used to buy. No fun.
Comment by kommishoner on September 2, 2009 at 10:03pm
We had Pee Chees in California growing up. And I'll say that I blame back-to-school advertising for my adult office supply fetish.
Comment by CJRW on September 6, 2009 at 7:32am
Oh lord, kommish! I have this awful, awful office supply thing, too!

I cannot pass the dollar section at Target without buying packages of Hello Kitty pencils and those magnetic grocery shopping lists. I'm so glad Lisa is only 20 months, because I dread the day that I'll have to get her school supplies. I just know I'm going to go nuts!

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