Monday, August 11, 2014

It's Back to School Time!

RHYS BOWEN: My grandkids in Arizona go back to school this week. And while I was signing books at Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale on Saturday I had a chance to stop by for a visit. And they were busy getting all their back-to-school stuff in order. It ranged from laptops to scientific calculators to iPads with all the year's text books already uploaded to them. The younger ones aren't allowed phones but many kids in their class already have smart phones.
So I'm thinking back to the start of school year when I was a child. No, we didn't exactly have slates, or quills on parchment, but the only thing we had to provide was our own pen and pencils.A fountain pen was a big ticket item in those days. Oh, and we had to bring a dictionary. And uniforms, of course. Very strict school uniform and PE uniform and house shoes to be worn on wet days. But books/paper/notebooks were all provided by the school. And so were our meals and our snacks.

And when my own kids went to school I remember lunch boxes were a big thing.
We'd go out to Target or similar and they'd be allowed to choose their lunch boxes for the year, each containing a thermos flask. Those never worked well at keeping chocolate milk cold or soup hot, I remember. There were lunch boxes considered "IN" each year. TV shows that were hot at the time--like the Partridge Family or the Bugaloos--or later groups like the Bee Gees. One of the rules of school survival was that one could NEVER bring last year's lunch box.
The rest was fairly simple, apart from agonizing over what to wear on the first day of school. By middle school age this meant calling ten friends to find out what they were wearing. I remember my eleven year old telling me that EVERYONE else had Calvin Klein jeans except her. So I sat outside the school with a pad and pencil and did a survey. I was able to tell her that night that her statement had been disproved. (See, parents have to be smart)

They had back packs in those days. Nothing on wheels. (And just to update you, my soon-to-be freshman at a private high school reported that NOBODY had a wheeled backpack. Absolutely NOBODY in spite of the fact that she'd be carrying around huge text books.) In the lower grades the important items was the box of crayons.--at least 64. In higher grades items like a mirror for the locker. How simple life was (and relatively inexpensive). There were no iPhones or iPads to accidentally drop into swimming pools or down the school stairs. Okay, so those lunch boxes occasionally got battered or run over by the car, but all in all it wasn't a bank-breaking experience.
So what do you remember about back-to-school? Trauma or excitement? And what new item did you have to have?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, golly, Rhys (as Georgie would say), you beat me to it! But I have the last week in August, which used to be back-to-school back in the paleolithic era when I was in school. Now everyone starts the beginning of August. And so funny about the Calvin Klein jeans. I wish I'd been that smart. (Also wish my daughter had had to wear uniforms!)
I LOVED shopping for school supplies when I was a kid. New tablets, pencils, notebooks, and of course, CRAYONS.  I still love Crayons.
The mere smell is enough to make me swoon. And at least a 64 count box!  And I probably had a Lone Ranger lunch box--not featuring Johnny Depp!  I loved shopping for back-to-school clothes with my mom. We went to Northpark (you've been there, Rhys) which was THE place to shop in Dallas. (Still is, actually.) We bought things like wool skirts and knee socks and sweaters, which must have been really silly because in Dallas you can't wear them until November... It was just the ritual and anticipation of it all. Is there anything like that for grown-ups.  For us writers, maybe starting a new book.  What do you think?

HALLIE EPHRON: My favorite thing about back to school was putting together a 3-ring notebook with dividers. Remember the different color tinted tabs that you slipped labels into? And I had reinforcements for the holes in the filler pages, as if they needed to be preserved for posterity. I felt SO organized. For about thirty seconds. Until my natural messiness kicked in. Within a week my neat notebook was a disaster.
Yes, fountain pens! The ones with cartridges. I loved them. And they made me slow down and write legibly. Being a lefty, I was forever smearing what I'd just written. Very annoying.

LUCY BURDETTE: I loved, loved, loved going back to school every year--everything about it, from the new outfits to the pencil boxes and notebooks to finding out who the teacher would be and which friends would be in which classes. (Wouldn't you just know we are all school nerds here at JRW.) The only bad years I had were the two when my family moved, at the beginning of sixth grade from New Jersey to Michigan, and then back, at the beginning of ninth grade. It was hard making new friends and figuring out the dress code all over again. Phew, junior high school years are rough anyway--never mind starting over completely!
Rhys, you have me laughing--I can totally picture you in the car taking the clothing survey and then presenting the results to your daughter.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oooh, I loved the dividers for each subject. Black vinyl covered three-ring notebooks. And cartridge fountain pens. I loved protractors, and rulers, and anything that could make perfect lines. Reinforcements that were webby, that you had to lick.
Some years, you had to cover your textbooks with brown paper. Some years that was--what did we call it? Gross.
We had to wait until the first day to see if the new year was going to be tennis shoes that you kept white with show polish, or that you had to get instantly grimy. And whether you put pennies, or dimes, in your loafers. Or nothing at all. The rules were VERY STRICT. Linda Katzenberger and Sue Marling set them.
Now, lunch boxes? Never. It was incredibly uncool to take your lunch.
I remember heather-colored cardigan sweaters with grosgrain ribbon down the front, and matching heather a-line skirts. Circle pins!
And I still have dreams that I am missing the school bus, and that I forgot my locker combination.

RHYS: So do share your back to school memories. Lunch boxes? Star Trek? Partridge Family?


  1. Back to school . . . we ate lunch at school, so no lunch boxes. Pencils, pens, a notebook . . . all the rest we got at school. No backpacks; we just carried everything.

    When the girls were in middle school, we moved to Alabama and I discovered "The List" of all the things students were expected to bring. I was stunned. My oldest Colorado grandbaby had a list this year that included [among other things] five reams of paper, Vis a Vis overhead projector pens, Expo dry erase markers, forty-eight pencils [how does a first grader need forty-eight pencils?] . . . somehow I think the fun has gone out of back-to-school supplies . . . .

  2. Beginning of the school year: a new box of Prange water color paints. Eight colors. We bought them from the school office. And I discovered that you could buy a replacement oval of paint (I think they cost three cents). I'd buy one-- usually blue-- after a substantial snowstorm and leave a trail of little blue ovals by pressing it, face down, into the snowbanks all the way home.

    I antedate backpacks. In junior high, I carried my books in a leather briefcase that was heavy even when empty, so my other hand/arm would be free to carry my cello (light because it was hollow, but very awkward). (Can you say "nerd"?)

    In high school I carried my books on one hip, even though our gym teacher told us that we'd be sorry, because it was bad for our backs. Sure enough, half a century later, I have spinal stenosis and scoliosis as my reward-- but I like to think we did look fetching in our poodle skirts and little tied neck scarves, with our books balanced on one hip.

  3. When I was younger, back to school shopping meant shoe shopping! Catholic school, very strict about uniforms, and that ridiculous kneeling on the floor to have the skirt length measured....But we could wear any style of shoe, and it was the only way to express your personality. In sixth grade, my "school shoes" were wingtips--in patent leather yellow! I'm still so proud I had the gumption to wear those shoes, which the nuns HATED. It was the closest to rebellion I ever came in my young life.

    In high school (public school), I remember carrying stacks of books in a tower. No lunch box. Lunch was soda and chips from the vending machine.

    I'm embarrassed to say, I don't remember any joy from school supplies. School was all about socializing to me. But when my children went to school and "the list" was posted--yikes! Take out a freaking second mortgage. It's ridiculous what kids are expected to buy and provide for school, because they never used half of it.

    (If this gets posted 42 times, ti's because that photo sphere thing is psycho)

  4. School lunches... lunchboxes were considered a faux pas. Paper bags. And I was so embarrassed when I got a sardine sandwich. It stank and the sardines turned the bread yellow.

    My kids were humiliated when I sent them to school with a leftover lamb chop or sweet red pepper stuffed with cream cheese. YUM... but the other kids said ICK. It was not about food -- but about not being different.

  5. Ellen, I wouldn't blame the books for your poor spinal health. Some of us carried babies on our hips for years without getting that particular malady.

    Ramona, we also had to do the hem length check by kneeling on the floor (which was usually accomplished in morning chapel). But we subverted this check by rolling our skirts at the waistband--which looked totally ridiculous on wool plaid pleated skirts. I was very skinny, and I'm pretty sure I looked like a hot dog with an inner tube around the middle.

    My kids brought home the same lists, Joan. And when my last daughter went off to college and I cleaned out all the debris they left behind I found HUNDREDS of barely used and unused pens, pencils, markers, and crayons. Not to mention dozens of partial notebooks.

    I wish I'd known then what I know now. We could have saved a small fortune in school supplies. And I still have a couple of their lunchboxes, but they are the plain, soft, insulated variety. As a matter of fact, I used one yesterday, noting in passing the phone number written inside.

  6. No lunch boxes for me, either. In grade school I walked home to eat lunch. In high school everyone either brought brown bags or bought lunch in the cafeteria. What I do remember is the awful smell of cooking bologna. Apparently health regulations required this, not caring that it totally ruined the taste and texture. Lunch, though, was mostly for socializing. It didn't matter what we ate. I have some very good lunchtime memories of Liberty Central High School in Liberty, NY (class of '65).

    School in early August??? Wow. That seems way too soon to end the summer. If I remember right, we didn't go back until after Labor Day.


  7. You are all very young or went to school in a city. We took nothing but ourselves to school. Supplies were supplied! I remember the getting ready for the first day - what to wear! No lockers in our school then either. We all carried our books in our arms, leaving some in our desks.
    How times change.

  8. Am I the only one who remembers when the first day of school was practically in October, because they were waiting for the polio epidemic to dwindle or cease?

  9. School supplies. I loved shopping for school supplies. Every year, I was convinced that a brand new notebook and pen (forget the fountain pens; they ALWAYS leaked) would make me organized. My sister -- a teacher -- and I were chatting the other day about how much earlier school starts. She's already back (teaches in my home town in Tennessee)! Even when I was in high school, we were always sent back ahead of Labor Day -- hottest month, no AC, and they sent us back in August.

  10. Back to school for me was always traumatic. As my daughter would say, I was "that" kid - the one who never fit in no matter what I did. I do remember my parents always got me the standard box of 24 crayons, but one year, my grandparents bought me the box of 64 with the sharpener. I felt uber-cool, but even that was not enough.

    Rhys, funny about the jeans. For me it was Jordache, something we couldn't afford. My aunt and uncle bought me a pair in junior high and I wore them until my mother forcibly took them away because they were about to squeeze me in half. Yeah, those didn't help with the popularity either.

    My son transferred to a new Catholic school this year and the list is much more manageable - pens, pencils, paper. But since when to classroom supplies like Lysol and Kleenex become "school supplies"?

    My girl goes to Catholic high school this year. So far, the only thing I've had to buy was the fancy graphing calculator. She won't get her lists until the first day and I shudder to think what will be on them.

  11. NO lunch boxes OR bags. It was only cool to eat the school food, which was ridiculous. The cafeteria people would always give names to the menu items--for instance, it wasn't spaghetti and meat sauce, it was "Roman Holiday." To this day when I see spaghetti, I think Roman Holiday. The names didn't make the stuff taste any better.

    I always thought about those lunch ladies sitting around, making up names for food. I still think it's kid of--sweet.

  12. I don't remember having to provide anything when I was in elementary school. Of course, I went to a private school for K-3, so that might have been it. I then was home schooled for 4-10, and my parents provided anything. Public high school for my last two years, and I provided paper and binders and pens, but they had textbooks for me to borrow.

    When I was home schooled, we went year round, but even so fall always brings the feel of a new start for me. I don't like winter, so that of fall I don't like, however.

  13. I always loved going back to school. We started at the begining of September.I also loved the three ring binders and putting the dividers in to keep everything organized. Back to school meant new notebooks and pens and pencils and my mothers peanut butter sandwiches.I went to Catholic school so back to school also meant back to uniforms which meant white blouse, jumper, and black sneakers in elementary school and knit top and skirt as I got older. The thing I remember about my school was skirts had to be knee length, no makeup not even lip gloss and no nail polish unless it was clear. Yeah it was a very strict Catholic school.

  14. Yes, who thinks its a good idea to send kids in Arizona back to school in August when it's still 110 degrees? We used to go back in September when there was fall in the air and summer was over.

    And I'd forgotten that my kids went to a parochial school in Texas that had the most gourmet hot lunches. Turkey and stuffing and cranberries... that sort of thing. When the two ladies serving it wanted to retire it turned out that they had been volunteers for years. Not paid one penny. No wonder the lunches were affordable.

  15. When I started school, it was in the mornings only. I went to different kinds of schools ~ Catholic school, boarding school (I was a day student), and public schools.

    At the Catholic school, we had to wear uniforms and the funny thing is the uniform was in my family tartan colors. At that time I hated the uniform but now I love wearing plaid skirts. Go figure!

    Hot lunches were provided at the boarding school and we were NOT allowed to bring paper bag lunches. The school food was YUCKY. They made everything, even my favorite food, taste awful. At home, I had healthy food that tasted good.

    At the public school, I brought paper bag lunches and I remember sometimes getting what I wanted. I loved egg salad sandwiches. I also had vegetarian sandwiches ( I called them "salad" sandwiches).

    I vaguely remember lunch boxes with pictures of different popular TV shows.

    We never had to provide our own school supplies. After the voters voted for a proposition, which had a big negative effect on public services including public education, there was less of everything.

    ironically, the teachers paid for the school supplies out of their own pocket because most of the kids at the school were from below the poverty level families.

    School always started in September. But the boarding school had a weird schedule. School still went on Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. School started again after Christmas vacation before new years day.

    I remember visiting Washington DC as a child in August and I recall school started in August. Not in California.

    Now there are some year around schools.

    Your comment about gourment lunches reminded me of something.

    When I went to boarding school, I recall one of my teachers mentioned that her daughter went to a private day school and they served gourment lunches. But that school was very expensive. Her husband was an attorney so they could afford to send their children to private school.


  16. Well, most schools these days are air-conditioned. Boy I sure remember some hot, hot, airless days sitting in classrooms. The windows might have been open, but that barely meant anything, especially if the door to the room was closed.

    The kids down in Kentucky started last week; our district here in Cincinnati starts next week. We always started after Labor Day, and I don't remember polio being an issue here, Ellen. But our mom made us take naps every darn day in the summer, for years, because she lived in terror that one of us would get it.

  17. Karen, "Don't get overtired" was one of the polio rules. Along with "Don't get chilled," and "Stay away from crowds" (we never got to go to the State Fair until after the Salk vaccine came out!), and "Don't play with strange children" (I think that was meant to maintain herd immunity, but it has a lot of odd implications).

  18. Labor Day. You go back to school the day after LAbor Day. Everyone knows that. It's SO weird now!

    And I still have the urge to get new supplies every September!

  19. Not around here. My son goes back a week from this Thursday and my daughter starts high school in (gulp) two weeks from today.

    And then, of course, they immediately get a long weekend for Labor Day.

  20. Does anyone remember three cents (five?) milk money for afternoon milk break? One lucky student got to collect all the money, count how many white/how many chocolate, and make the trek to the cafeteria each afternoon. First through third or fourth grade, maybe.

  21. I'd rather shop at Staples than Sephora any day, so buying back to school supplies felt like Christmas to me. Lucky me, I've been teaching part-time for the past 30 years, so I still go back to school shopping. Best ever: 20% everything you can fit in an Office Max brown bag. You can't imagine what you can fit in one.

  22. Count me as one of the school nerds, too. I loved the start of school and shopping for supplies (although most were supplied by the school in elementary grades) and new clothes. I began school at my own house, as my mother taught kindergarten in our basement, which was both a good thing and a bad for me. My mother was one smart cookie, and she caught me trying to play sick one day so I could stay upstairs and watch TV. Didn't work. When I began elementary school, it was close by, and I walked to and from school with friends. Each year my mother would take a first day of school picture with the neighbor kids next door, my brother, and me. Girls always wore dresses in those days, and for the first two years, my mother would braid my hair into pigtails and put ribbons on them. As I got older, I still loved the start of school, especially getting our books at the beginning of each year. Oh, and like Rhys said, it was always September when we started and fall was on its way, which was good as there was no air conditioning in my schools all the way through high school.

    Rhys, your story about the jeans is hilarious! What a brilliant idea to do your own survey and present the facts to your daughter. LOL!

  23. My first grade thermos (red plaid) leaked, so my lunch was always soaked. My mother's solution was to screw the thermos so tightly that I couldn't open it (although it still leaked!) and neither could my teacher. Every day, I had to make the long, echoing, terrifying trip to the school basement where I was forced to interrupt the scary custodian's lunch so he could open my thermos, which was by then only half full of warm milk. What a trauma. At Christmas, my mother finally discovered the thermos was cracked inside. Oh, how I hated that plaid thermos!

  24. School started two days after Labor Day for us. We brought our lunches to school. In Kindergarten through 8th grade, our parochial school didn't have a cafeteria, so we sat at our desks to eat the lunches we brought. In the Catholic high school I went to, we had a lunchroom.

    I still love the smell of pencils, crayons, etc, at the beginning of the school year even though I'm WAY past school age! I want to buy as many notebooks as I can afford, particularly with organizational features, telling myself that I'll find a use for them even though I'm not in school. (They're so much cheaper around the beginning of the school year!) And for some reason the smell of bananas in September makes me nostalgic, too.

    I always brought my lunch in brown bags. My parents couldn't afford to buy lunchboxes for five kids.

    When I was in the middle grades I carried my books in a book bag, which I found to be very convenient. Unfortunately, I was teased and mocked a lot for that, so I started carrying everything in my arms, which was much more cumbersome. Too bad we have to age a few decades before we stop being self-conscious about some things. These days I carry things to work in a bright, colorful tote bag, and I don't care what anyone thinks! I use a backpack style purse, which I would have been very self-conscious about as a kid. I love it - half the time I don't even realize it's there and I have to ask myself if I left it home!

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  26. Rhys, for me there are few things so provocative of happy childhood memories as those in getting ready for the new school year.

    My first day of school meant getting my first school boxes—a lunch box and a pencil box. Both were my favorite shade of blue, the trade-off for not being able to get the one with Roy Rogers and Trigger on the lid.

    When I lived with my great-grandmother the local schools still used inkwells. We had to use pens that you dipped into little glass ink wells that sat in a hole in the right-hand corner of the top of your desk—problematic for lefties. So a big part of our preparation for the first day of school ritual was getting ready for inky stuff—blotters, extra nibs, ink erasers (that did not work on inkwell ink), and reminders about not wiping our hands on our clothes. Or face. Or hair. Or—sorry—the inside of our nose.

    I don't know why we were required to use pen and ink, but I remember the first time we were allowed to use ballpoint pens was 6th grade. We had a lot of instruction on their proper use. Given our experience with ink pens until then—an inordinate amount I thought—regarding their messiness.

  27. Reine, we had that anti-ball point thing too-- ballpoint pens were supposed to be bad for your handwriting. I had inkstained fingers for years.

    My passion is felt-tip pens and rollerballs. And I love to go to bar conventions for the swag-- pens, post-it pads, etc. If you attend enough meetings, you don't need to go to Staples or Office Max.

  28. I love everything about back to school, and even now, the whole idea of it makes me want to buy something argyle and go to an office supply store! My packed lunch, sadly, was carried in a brown paper bag. And I do get the itch to buy a whole fall wardrobe in September, regardless of the temperature in southern California!

  29. Ellen Kozak—so glad not to have been alone in all of that ink craziness!