“Can I wear this right now, Mom?” My seven year old son asked me at the checkout counter, fully expecting me to say no. He had a brand new back pack in one hand and a big bag full of folders and pencils and supplies in the other. I started to say no, out of habit, but I stopped myself. His enthusiasm and genuine excitement rubbed off on me and we walked out of the store with him wearing a new jacket and an empty backpack on his back.
In case you missed all the advertisements, it is Back to School season! With just a week left to go before school starts, we braved the pouring rain and similarly motivated families to go shopping for clothes and school supplies. The atmosphere in the store was akin to Christmas. Bright signs and flags marked the way to a large section of the store dedicated to Back to School items. Some frequently bought items were packaged together into convenient bundles for hassle free shopping. There were three or four rows of shelves for just binders and folders. Pencils, crayons, markers and sharpeners were spilling out of cleverly placed end caps. Overall there was a mood of gaiety and celebration all around.
This made me think about my back to school routine. I spent most of my childhood in a small south Indian town which had one hospital, four churches, two temples, a small vegetable market, one bakery and one stationary/book store. Summer vacation ended around the last week of May and we made that first trip to the school, before the school began, to get our school uniforms. That was the beginning of the week long ritual to get ready for the new school year. A list of textbooks and notebooks was provided by the school but everything else was optional and left entirely to the financial ability of one’s parents. Pencils were mandatory till the third grade and after that; we could only use fountain pens. That meant bottles of nasty smelling Camel brand blue ink also made their way into the shopping bags. Backpacks were made of durable canvas and were available in basic colors such as black, blue, beige etc. Pencil boxes were fashion accessories. In the higher grades, we had to buy the geometry box with a compass, divider, ruler, Set Square, protractor, eraser and a pencil sharpener. Mechanical pencils were a big deal, available in bright colors and usually “imported”. Being that the highly anticipated southwest monsoon usually made its entrance around the same time as the school started, raincoats and umbrellas were a necessary purchase. A stop at the local Bata store for a pair of black lace shoes and white socks completed the shopping trip.
The second part of the ritual was a family affair. We would lay out the books to be covered and labeled. Rolls of brown paper were taken out along with sheets of name labels. My parents would cut out the brown paper needed for covering each book and meticulously cover and tape that book. Warnings on keeping the books neat and organized ensued. When they thought I was old enough, I was trusted to cover my own books and a few of my younger brother’s. There were single lined notebooks for Social Studies and Science, four-lined books for English and two-lined books for the two local languages, Hindi and Malayalam. While my parents worked hard to make them look academically dignified, I would open up textbooks and browse through lessons on the Human Body, Differentiation, Robert Frost and the vast maze of newsprint that was to be my companion for the next year. The final touch was the label. Very basic in form, this was a rectangular piece of paper with pre-printed lines for Name, Std., Section, School and Subject. With each passing year, new and exciting innovations occurred in the field of the labels. One year it was sticker labels while another was all about Mickey and Minnie and Donald Duck or bright floral prints or cute animal themes. My father would then write our names, proudly and neatly, on these labels, with more instructions and warnings to keep the covers and labels on the books at least till the first Terminal examination. Then all the books and pencil boxes were put away in the respective schoolbags, awaiting the start of yet another exciting year.
The school lists have changed, the supplies options have upgraded significantly but the excitement and anticipation of going to a new class with some old and some new friends, is still the same. For my children, at this age when getting the right pencil grips, erasers and sharpeners is as critical as finding out who will sit with you in the class and on the school bus, which kid you will have to avoid and what the new teacher will be like, back to school shopping is an important event, as it was for me. I am looking forward to the new school year and I smile as we join this last minute frenzy of back-to-school celebration.