As a kid in the 1950s, summer was over and school started right after Labor Day.
Boys and girls would get “fall cottons,” which consisted of plaid dresses and shirts in the heat of Texas along with new saddle oxfords or loafers. When kids got their teacher assignment, moms told you not to whine and go outside and play till dusk while she smoked her Pall Malls or Viceroys and flipped through Ladies Home Journal or made a casserole involving a can of mushroom soup.
The excitement of covering your textbooks with cut-up brown grocery sacks and putting your friends’ names on them was the best. By high school we gals wanted shirtwaist dresses and circle pins, and guys wore madras and Jade East cologne while we went to get our protractors, compasses, and map pencils and picked up a few items for shop or home ec.
My own children were a bit more complicated. School started in the middle of August and we sweltered in our station wagons finding the holy grail of the new, cool shoes.
Mothers with their Chases, Jasons, and Christophers and Jennifers, Ashleys, and Megans spent hours in stores getting the correct colored folders, charcoal art stick, calculators, backpacks, loose-leaf paper and binders, with throngs of other moms with their checklists. Once tax-relief weekend began, the malls were worse than at Christmas.
The great invention of my motherhood was shoes with Velcro tabs. Exhausted parents then spent hours on the phone scheduling the after-school music, dance, art, sports, or tutoring lessons and carpools. Myriads of forms had to be filled in and notarized from doctors, field-trip forms, permission forms. Kids were kicked outside to get them off the Intellivison or away from MTV while mostly moms cooked or nuked supper or got it out of the Crock-Pot. By Labor Day, everybody was so ready for a break.
Today, the mothers of Madison, Gabriella, and Jackson, as well as the Harpers, Camerons, and Coopers, go to mega-stores to get lunch pouches with plastic boxes for gluten-free, nut-free sandwiches, containers for mac-and-cheese that can be heated in the classroom microwave, with the obligatory mini-carrots, power bars, veggie chips, yogurt cups, and bottled water. If not uniforms, then there are specialty stores for the young, tweens, teens, and beyond. There is often little difference with how the parents and their teenagers dress. There are some paperbacks and notebooks, folders and pens to be purchased, but increasingly it’s about the cell phones, electronic tablets or personal computers. Much can be ordered online; most forms can be filled in that way.
Parents march into schools demanding teacher and classroom changes, and assess the safety of the playground equipment, the political correctness of the syllabus, lobby coaches for their child to be showcased. There are fewer carpools with safety seats taking up all the space in the minivans, and often nannies and helpers doing the driving while stopping to pick up something to assemble for dinner. Kids are never kicked outside but supervised on playdates or planned activities while parents or helpers check their email or texts. By Labor Day, everyone needs a break.
What will back-to-school look like for my grandchildren’s children? Will kids with gender-neutral names decide whether to be female or male and then possibly switch for the experience? Will iPads and iPhones be obsolete, with drones delivering the wristwatch that can be programmed to tune into virtual classrooms? Will there even be school? Maybe open classrooms all the time everywhere? Maybe there won’t be a summer finale as we learn to regulate weather and dispense with Labor Day because manual labor is a quaint notion. Some of it will be progress. And the rest might send us back to the classroom.
Len Bourland can be reached at [email protected].