Life Cycles : Back-to-School Days Stir Up Girlhood Memories, Adult Realities

Times Staff Writer

The urge to go back-to-school shopping--for myself--is almost overwhelming this time of year. Getting my 12-year-old son ready for the first day of school always awakens myriad girlhood emotions in me--the horror of having my mother choose an outfit for me that wasn’t in fashion, the anticipation of seeing (in the flesh) the guys I had fantasized while reading romance novels hour after hour on the beach over the summer, the ache in my stomach at the thought of being rejected by the “in” group, the excitement of seeing the teachers whose nurturing made up for a lot of my disappointments in the social scene.

I always had a nervous stomach the first day of school--and it always made me feel better to show up in new clothes, carrying a meticulously organized notebook and newly sharpened pencils.

I don’t know if my son goes through as many mixed emotions as I did just before school started--though I know he has as much trouble sleeping the night before Day One as I did--but, for the most part, he responds cheerfully to my efforts to get him ready. Weeks before summer is over, we start checking out school supplies, and his eyes light up as I point to things we must get before school starts.

It’s tough, sometimes, to keep the back-to-school shopping urges under control. We just spent about $30 on an assortment of classroom supplies for the school year that starts Monday for my sixth-grader. Almost half of that went for some fancy marking pens (“But, Mom, everyone has them!”), but I did manage to hold my ground on the battery-operated pencil sharpener he wanted to keep on his desk at school. You have to win some of those battles to hold your head up among the many other parents being dragged around the back-to-school shopping circuit.


In the clothing department, however, getting my son to let me spend money is a struggle. He will wear only one style of pants--in one color (navy blue)--and won’t wear any shirt that has to be buttoned or has long sleeves, which severely restricts our options. He also refuses to try anything on--until I threaten to dress him myself. So it’s a moral victory to leave with enough underwear, socks, pants and shirts to get through one week without having to do laundry. Still, even one completely new outfit satisfies my need for him to start school with a sense that this is “the new me” and anything can happen.

All this preparation for school helps me get in touch with the cycles that young people seem to take for granted--until their school days are over and real life sets in. They may feel stress facing the demands of school, but they know relief will come--during winter and spring breaks and especially during summer.

As a parent, I get to experience some of those cycles, too. When school ends, I no longer have to think about packing a lunch for school, making sure the homework gets done and seeing that the lights go out on time. Our lives become less regimented, and I feel an enormous relief when that sense of freedom comes in June.

I’m always surprised come August to find myself looking forward to having that regimentation back--just as I was always glad when I was a student to rediscover a sense of purpose after spending so many summer days idling on the beach, living through daydreams.


I remember promising myself my last year of college that I would never forget the agony of having to meet term paper deadlines. I couldn’t imagine feeling nostalgia for my school days. But then I was intent on becoming a full-fledged adult--with a job, family and home of my own. And I didn’t know that adults have to make their own cycles, scheduling vacations months ahead of time and working at making the most of them when there’s barely enough time to unwind.

Knowing that now, I want my son to make the most of his summers, wallowing in purposelessness until he hungers for the intellectual and emotional stimulation of school again. And then I want him to wallow in that until he’s yearning for the relief of summer.

So far, that’s just what he’s doing. And, in a vicarious sort of way, so am I.