Back-to-School

August is beginning to wind down and back-to-school is in the air. Last night I went to pick up some school supplies, not for my own children, they buy their own supplies now, but to donate as part of a program that supports both inner city and rural schools in my area. I’ve always loved the new school year with its nerves and excitement all wrapped up into a tight little bundle that makes it difficult to fall asleep, and the promise of new beginnings, fresh and crisp like a September morning.

My own most special back-to-school memory involves my maternal grandmother whom I called Vovó. One Saturday, before I started kindergarten, we rode the bus downtown to a well-known children’s clothing store. This was a time before the mall, Walmart, and Target had come to the area. It wasn’t the kind of store where my family normally shopped, and I certainly had never been there before that day. Most of my clothes were either homemade, or hand-me-downs, always clean and pressed, functional, but rarely fashionable.

My grandmother was a stitcher in a factory, and my grandfather a foreman at a fish plant on the docks. While they were a far, far cry from wealthy, they were slightly more well-to-do than my parents, who in their mid-twenties had two children and another on the way. My dad was a construction laborer and my mom worked in a factory that made children’s pajamas.

I was the oldest grandchild, so I’m guessing that it must have been one of my grandmother’s co-workers who instructed her about proper school attire and where to purchase it. A pretty saleswoman helped Vovó choose dresses for me on that Saturday morning. I stood on a table modeling each one, twirling happily in front of a three-paneled full-length mirror, like the belle of the ball instead of the peanut with a bad haircut that my mother had given me. I’ll never forget it. It was my fairy princess moment, and my heart swelled with every dress I tried on.

Vovó bought me five dresses that day, one for each day of the week. Five dresses! Can you imagine? She returned to that store each week, on payday, probably for months, to pay-off the back-to-school shopping spree. That’s how they did credit in small towns then.

After shopping, we stopped at the Woolworths’ lunch-counter, another first for me. Eating out was a luxury that my family couldn’t afford. I sat tall, on a chrome and red barstool that spun, my feet dangling in the air, and ordered a tuna salad sandwich on toast. It came, sliced diagonally with a few slices of sweet pickle on the side. I couldn’t have felt any more important if I’d been having tea and crumpets with the queen. For dessert we shared an ice cream sandwich, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream, sliced into a perfect square, tucked between two waffles. What a day!

Decades later, I still remember every vivid detail as though it were yesterday. I also remember how special and pretty I felt when I wore those brand new dresses to school. Every time I look at my kindergarten school picture, in my favorite red dress with my pixie cut and crooked bangs, I grin shamelessly while the warm memories flood me.

So as I meandered through the aisles last night, tossing school supplies in my cart, I didn’t bother with the inexpensive but functional, instead I threw in snazzy pens and notebooks, with lots of glitter and style. The hippest binders I could find, and markers that did all sorts of really cool things, along with backpacks that would be the envy of any privileged suburban kid. Because rich or poor, every child should feel special on the first day of school.