As I prepare to go back to school, the time of year which always marks a new year for me more than January 1 ever will, I find myself recalling the joy I felt in going to school as a child. It helps bring me to a more optimistic mindset, a point of view which cherishes the simplicity and the love my parents showed in helping with the preparation.
After the shoes were bought at Oak Brook shopping center, where seemingly thousands were tried on to fit my troublesome feet, the box was transformed into a school supply box. My mother covered it with yellow flowered contact paper, and my father cut a slit into one end through which the ruler could protrude.
Inside went the standard box of 16 crayons. “That’s plenty,” said my mother, “sixteen are more than enough,” as I would beg for the 64 count box. Crayons were not an item on which we could be extravagant, but scissors were. “She’s going to have them for at least five years,” said my mother, “we are going to buy a quality pair.” No kid-friendly scissors for me, with a gently rounded tip and plastic handles. Instead, I had stainless steel sharper-than-sharp scissors which could easily cut through anything. To that end, my father saved a cork from one of his wine bottles into which the ends of the scissors could be stuck so that they would not hurt little fingers.
There were no glue sticks, then. Instead we had pots of glue with a little paddle attached to the lid with which to spread the paste on one’s project. Or, I had mucilage: a clear, brownish liquid which always formed a crust on the rubber tip of the bottle. Sometimes, the old dried glue would adhere to the paper along with the fresh, and the project would have a hidden lump. I hated that.
Perhaps one of the best parts of all were the brand new No. 2 pencils. After supper, my father would sit with his pocket knife (ever sharp, ever ready in his pocket) and whittle the ends of the pencils until they were sharp enough to write with. I liked it when he sharpened them, because the lead was exposed much more than if had they been put through an electric sharpener; it seemed to me I could write endlessly without needing them to be re-sharpened.
Finally, there was a square of oil cloth. By the end of the year, it would crack along the folds made so that it could fit into the school supply box. But mine was a cheerful red and white gingham pattern, and out it would come before Art so that my desk was protected from clay. Stray crayon marks. Mucilage crust.
What are parents buying today for their children? Little hand-held calculators. Dry erase markers. Colored pencils, crayons and scented neon washable markers. Instead of oil cloths there are disposable baby wipes. It’s a different world, and I try to embrace it.
But, a piece of me wants to take my black Ticonderoga pencils over to my parents’ house and ask my father, “Will you sharpen these for me? Just like you did in 1967?” And ask my mother, “Will you cover my shoe box and make it pretty like you always did?”
I’m sure they would.