Ann, Matt and family are on their way home from vacation. She says, 'Can you believe school starts next week?' I'm watering the pots and the hummingbirds are zipping around my ears. The sun is noticeably lower in the sky at 7 pm. For the first time in weeks, I am reluctant to head indoors for the evening: the temperature is less than eighty and my skin drinks in everything refreshing in the atmosphere. The lyrics that come to mind change the song for the affected sense: 'on a calm day, you can hear forever.' A normal farm day requires sifting the conversation through the filter of a howling wind. The dog walkers are out in full force and the good people of Tarkio, more sensible than some of the city folk I've seen, are choosing tonight to cruise through town with their 'tops rolled down'.
So, yes, given the weather this evening, I guess I can believe school starts next week.
And yet, I understand her question. School means an end to evening trips to the pool, to watching "late" movies any old night of the week with Dad, to running wild with your cousins out at the farm. School means a return to structure, to the morning rush, to getting picked up, to wearing something different every day, not just what's on top of the wash pile. Hair must be combed and fixed. Homework must be done and packed. Dates on the calendar must be filled: picture day, treat day, homecoming, Grandparent's day and a host of others, too many to remember.
The start of school when I was little meant two things: new shoes and a new lunch box. I was less excited about the shoes than most kids would have been. This was before the days of wearing "tennis" shoes (or gym shoes, or sneakers or athletic shoes or whatever the term of choice) to school. My feet resisted all efforts to fit into cute Mary Janes or any kind of loafers or even saddle shoes. Nope, my poor feet spread out like camel pads when I stood upon the metal shoe sizer and needled over at width E. E!!!! Just let me tell you what shoes were available in width E. One kind: Hush Puppies. Tie oxford Hush Puppies. Big, wide, sueded tie oxford Hush Puppies. That's it. I knew without a doubt what my new school shoes would look like. Resigned to a choice that was no choice, I made a pretense of picking out the ......color. Sage green, tan, brown, dark blue, black. Year after year, I'd wear one or another of these hues in E width suede Hush Puppies home from the store. The only compensation was that the Hush Puppy on the box was kind of cute with a melancholy expression that reflected exactly how I felt about my feet.
Lunch boxes, on the other hand, were one size fits all. My dad took his lunch to work every day in a box of the classic style one sees in black and white prints of workers from the '40s on...a dented metal box with a high domed lid to hold a Thermos, a black plastic handle and two fold over latches. My father never got a new lunch box; instead, when the handle broke, he taped over it and finally replaced it completely with a piece of chain. Hinges or latches were rescrewed when they rattled loose. Thankfully, we never had to resort to recycling lunch boxes. Instead, we were allowed to choose whatever design of square metal lunch box we wished. There are two I remember in particular: one was a Scotch plaid in red and green and the other a white box with little pink roses dotted across it and greenery as a border. I don't remember ever bringing home plastic wrap, but I know I was expected to bring home my baggies for re-use. Nothing was thrown away but apple cores, napkins and milk cartons.
Because Westboro had such outstanding cooks and lunches, the kids never picked new lunch boxes. But the annual excursion to purchase school supplies was a pleasure trip for all, Mom included. It was a ritual and demanded a trip out of town....at the time there was no Place's or Pamida here. Shoot, there wasn't even a Wal Mart in Shenandoah until Ann was in high school!! (We drove home from a volleyball game in Sidney to scope it out when it opened). I guess we went to the old WalMart in Maryville for our supplies, or, more likely, the Alco in Shenandoah. As time passed, the first box of eight jumbo Crayolas gradually evolved into fluorescent highlighters and sticky notes. Picking out folders, pencils, erasers, pens, scissors and Crayolas was fairly inexpensive entertainment, a good thing since we probably could have scratched together enough of the previous year's supplies for the first day of school. That would have broken the spell: by August, summer is old, summer clothes are old, sandals are old, the school itself is hot, the classrooms are certainly old and even your teacher might be the same, if you went to Westboro. But the notebook you pull out of your bag is smooth and unfrayed. The pencils are sharp and the eraser is flexible and clean. The crayons still fit in the box. New Year's itself pales in comparison to the first day of school if you are a kid.
For whatever reason, we also bought new jeans and undies at the start of school, even though jeans weather was at least a month off. The socks were a necessity; a summer of playing ball, gardening, biking, choring and other sundry outdoor activities would relegate the old tennis shoes to "farm" work, but required the summer socks to sent to the trash without passing GO or collecting $200.
On the first day of school everyone was ready before the bus came. With no coats and no chores and a bright sun to wake to, no poking or prodding was necessary. Before the bus arrived, the mom had to fulfill her end of the first day of school ritual: taking the obligatory picture of the students before they climbed the bus steps. Year after year, that photo fills its slot in the scrapbooks just after vacation shots and before Halloween. Even if the kids have had a bad hair day or are squinting evilly into the rising sun, the commemorative photo is still in the scrapbook.The big yellow bus would pull into our driveway, the kids would clamber on, and then......quiet. First one little student, then two, then three of wildly varied sizes....then back to two and finally a few years of just one, heading off to college under his own power.
Next week, Aaron, Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie will don their backpacks. I'll look forward to hearing about Aaron's new teacher and what new kids are in the little ones' class. Way out east, Ben will have his final first day of school, finishing off his academic journey. We'll eventually get used to the quiet hours when school is in....... and the chattering that commences when they come back home.