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I'd Rather Be Shopping For School Supplies

(David Pennington/UnsplashMoreCloseclosemore
(David Pennington/Unsplash

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One late afternoon last week, I figured I might think about starting in on that morning’s work. Owing to my inadvertent lifelong impersonation of a sloth, I was behind on everything. So, of course, I decreed it Top Priority to empty my inbox.

I signed into email, and up popped a new message from Staples, shouting at me about BACK-TO-SCHOOL DEALS — STARTING AT 50 CENTS!

Craving one tangible accomplishment before taking a break for snacks, I clicked "delete." And — zzzzzzzzzap. A pang ricocheted around my heart. An actual pang, I tell you, because our days of three-ring-binders are over.
Until that pang, if you'd asked me what I missed about the full nest epoch, then I would have said that I missed, almost exclusively, my sons' mini-iterations. Their previous little charming selves. This pang, however, signaled an epiphany. What I also miss, it appears, is school supplies.

Highlighters, erasers, glossy homework folders.

Protractors, crayons, left-handed scissors.

Glue sticks, for month-long projects such as Revolutionary War dioramas on which work would not begin until just about suppertime the night before the due date.

I adored this annual routine beyond any rational measure. 

I loved these provisions. I delighted in checking them off the list as we stocked up. I cherished every last supply even though an awful lot of them piled up unused and forgotten all year, every year. Yes, somewhere in a sack marked "giveaway" I still have a stash of deluxe plastic baseball-themed pencil sharpeners.

And now, this. The fresh school year is off and running, and here I slump, in its dust.

For the first time, my family is classroom-free. One son just finished undergrad and the other just finished grad school. The cubby-through-syllabus portion of our program has concluded.

You might think I would have already grasped the implications. You might assume the dual commencements mere months ago would have been a dead giveaway. But I somehow missed the cues. And here we are with no use for twelve-packs of Ticonderogas.

It’s disorienting.

Obviously, I love that my children have navigated through school and are, knock wood, thriving and pursuing their passions. We're lucky. I'm grateful that they are happy and are (o holy grail!) employed in their fields, the better to pay off those infernal student loans.

But I need more time to adjust to not having any earthly reason to snap up armfuls of plastic lime-green 6-inch rulers.

What’s a bit odd is that my devotion to buying school supplies is distinctly off-brand. I despise shopping. I'm even more obnoxiously hostile in retail environments than I am, well, everywhere else. Having fashioned a life-long religion out of making-do, I’ve also never met a penny I couldn’t pinch. Plus, remember, sloth? Unlike natural-born shoppers, slowness to the point of motionless stupor is how I roll.

And yet I adored this annual routine beyond any rational measure. Kindergarten, fourth grade, high school — my boys gained independence, but still we bonded over combination locks.

Even when the guys moved on to the geographically removed land of higher ed, each semester they endured my unsolicited advice about school supply possibilities. Did they pay attention and did they follow through? Probably not. OK, fine — absolutely, definitely, not. Never, ever, not even once. But they pretended, and they were polite, and that felt like a promise.

My sense of loss now is not exactly about nostalgia. What's dawned on me is that school supplies represent more. Once I became a parent, school supplies came to signify hope. They served as my aspirational totem. My link to a world of rewriting the future.

As I yearn for first-day-of-school supply missions past, I can take solace in believing that maybe my message really did sink in: with the right pencil pouch, all will be well.

School supplies reinforced the idea of being prepared, being organized, being…someone I’m not.

Since I can remember, life has caught me by surprise. Sometimes that’s a gift, sometimes not so much. But despite my inability to achieve this goal, I relish the idea of being ready. And if I couldn't accomplish that myself, I could at least watch the next generation succeed. Through my kids, I could engage in that readiness by proxy. Every back-to-school season, by cracky, these boys would be fortified with the tools to fend off disarray.

Inkpens, graph paper, 3-subject spiralbounds.

Scotch tape, assignment books, 8-tab dividers.

As it happens, even with these materials galore, my sons didn't tend to have their acts much more together than I did. Yet as they’ve entered adulthood, they do, and how. Their latter-day organizational and scholarly prowess is, clearly, a result of their own hard work and maturity. But I like to claim it's also a delayed effect of my slothy mama mojo.

And if that's even a tiny bit true? Ah, yes. As I yearn for first-day-of-school supply missions past, I can take solace in believing that maybe my message really did sink in: with the right pencil pouch, all will be well.

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Sharon Brody is the voice of WBUR's weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs.

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