The wonder of new stationery, shoe shop dread, the back to school photograph by the front door. Share our nostalgia.
When I was younger, my absolute favourite part about going back to school was the prospect of new stationery. It didn’t matter how many notebooks, gel pens, felt tips, biros and pencil cases I already owned; starting a fresh school year was the perfect excuse to rope mum into buying me more.
I’ve always loved collecting notebooks – not that I actually write in them or use them for anything useful, I just like the idea of them. Ever since I was a child, I was much happier with a new notepad and gel pen set than I was with a toy or game. And it’s not an obsession I’ve managed to grow out of. Instead of a back to school tradition, it’s now become a marker of the new calendar year. New Year’s Day rolls around and I feel an immense compulsion to trek down to Typo at Cribbs Causeway and invest in a new calendar diary, a new notebook for work and a new journal; all of which will end up at the bottom of my desk drawer. Organised at heart, but not in practice!
One back to school tradition which remained constant both as a child and as a parent was the buying new school shoes ritual. I hated it as a child, and as a parent too. School shoes were invariably ugly, so there would be arguments about what was and what wasn’t suitable.
I never had a school uniform, so it would be more an argument about what my Mum thought I should wear vs what I wanted to wear. (One year, when I was about 14, I must have won because she bought me some very high heeled tan lace ups. My victory was short-lived because they were really uncomfortable, I had to wear them for months, and I’ve never worn heels since.)
With my kids, there was a uniform. Black, no logos, no trainers. The sorry trek around Cribbs Causeway in the last week in August, in the queues of all the other Mums and kids who’ve left it to the last minute was never fun.
Most of all I didn’t like it because it really was the last minute. Buying the new ugly shoes signalled the end of summer, and the end of freedom.
For me, it was my Mum’s Christmas cupboard that she would start adding to from September. It was an eclectic, heady mix of Advocat, Sherry, Newberry Fruits, Sobranie cocktail cigarettes (this was the early 70s!) and chocolate Brazil nuts. The smell of that cupboard lives with me until this day. It signified school holidays, presents and fun and the fact that my Dad actually took four days off in a row – that rarely happened. On Christmas morning I would always be allowed to have a small glass of sherry in a tiny glass…Brings a tear to my eye just writing it down.
I think this tradition is something that most parents, grandparents and carers still do to this day, and it’s one I know I’ll be doing with my children.
If you haven’t guessed yet, it’s the legendary back to school pictures. My parents used to get my brother and I to stand in front of the house, just beside the front door (which was quite a fancy front door, so it made sense that it was the photography location), and they would take a picture of us in our new uniforms, with our shiny new shoes and whatever brand of backpack was popular that season.
As much as I hated these photographs back then, I love being able to look back at myself growing up before my eyes, and even getting a chuckle out of how little my brother and I have changed in 20 years. I also think it’s hilarious that my mother insisted on taking these pictures on my first day of my undergraduate degree and then again on my first day of my postgraduate degree – even when I didn’t live at home! It’s a cute little reminder of my journey through life so far, and I am thankful my parents decided to keep it going.
I’ve got two perspectives on this now: as a child and as a parent. As a child, I think I felt a lot like a condemned criminal feels – the sense of a shadow slowly lengthening, and a date with fate that could not be avoided. My ritual was a super-focused countdown not just of days, but hours. 4 days and 12 hours still to go! A whole day and this evening still to come!! Like naming the hours could slow them down.
I hated any reference to the return, from the buying of uniforms, to the changes in the TV schedule (why did they take the Banana Splits or Bell and Sebastian off air maybe a week before they ‘needed’ to?). By the time I was old enough to take notice of these things, both of my parents were teachers of one sort or another, so everyone went back and it was a big shift in household routines after six or seven weeks of no patterns, no restrictions. That explains some of it.
But I think the ‘shadows lengthening’ reference is more true. I’ve since discovered that I’m pretty sensitive to the changing length of day, and I’m much more likely to be anxious or depressed in winter. I think for me, the return to school really did mark the start of emotionally more difficult days. It also explains why I love Easter holidays more than Christmas, and of course the summer holidays the mostest.
I guess my childhood memories rubbed off on how I viewed my own kids return to school. Amelia’s entry made me smile, because I can remember that same glee at new stationary in my two. They told me they were mostly OK with the return, and for sure their routines helped me fend off my anxieties for them. They relied on a council-provided rural bus service to get them to school, and the bus was a vibrant little community in itself. They looked forward to that first journey, and I looked forward to renewing a friendship with the driver, and a quip or two with the other kids. I’m really glad for the photos we took too, because whereas my own school days stretch out over centuries, my kids’ passed in an eyeblink or two. Creating those memories is really, really important.