Back to School (the magic and the whimsy)

At the risk of sounding very, very odd indeed, I must confess there is a cupboard at my office that is my “favourite” because of the way it smells. It is a wooden cupboard that contains office supplies–pens, pencils, markers, paper–in neatly organized piles and packages. Now, I consider almost any neatly organized cupboard to be a thing of beauty, but the reason I love this particular cupboard so much is because it smells like Back to School.

Does “Back to School” have a smell? Yes, it most certainly does. It smells like pine wood, pink erasers, and writing utensils that have not yet been used. It can also smell like fresh Hilroy notebooks, the clean plastic interior of a new pencil box, or that cool autumnal snap that floats in strands on the lingering summer air. Oh yes, Back to School has a smell, and it is one of my favourites.

My birthday is in the spring, and the year I finally turned five years old I was appalled to learn I would still be going to preschool until the end of June. For ages (it seems to me) I had asked my parents, “When will I go to kindergarten? When do I get to go to kindergarten?” and they had told me, “When you’re five.” Well, I was five now so what the heck was my dad doing dropping me off at the Good Shepherd Anglican Church for another day of preschool in the basement with the babies? Apparently, my parents had not told me the whole truth. Yes, I was going to go to kindergarten when I was five but not until the fall. What a rip.

Not pictured: yellow Sesame Street lunchbox

That’s me! (not pictured: yellow Sesame Street lunchbox)

When the magic day finally arrived and I posed for a photo on the front steps with my new red backpack, only two things could dampen my enthusiasm: the first was that my mother, in the wisdom she had gained through her experience teaching small children, had chosen to dress me in nice new jeans instead of a dress or a skirt which I thought would have been more appropriate for such an important occasion but maybe not so easy to play in. The other was that my new lunchbox (an object I had craved, that to me conferred the same kind of authority and gravitas as a leather briefcase) was YELLOW and had SESAME STREET on it instead of being pink and having the Muppet Babies, like my older sister’s lunchbox. [For some reason, I was so sore about this that when a grade 12 boy on my bus kindly said to me later in the year, “Hey, Sesame Street, cool!” I thought he was making fun of me so I huffed, “Go away!” while burying myself in the corner of the bus seat.] Minor setbacks aside, my first school bus ride (three of us sharing a seat!) was everything I could have hoped for.

In kindergarten, we learned how to tie our shoes (not me though, my dad had to show me a cheat because that one-eared rabbit was having a lot of trouble finding his second ear in that loopy hole; I still cheat to this day) and what sounds the letters make and not to push people or scream indoors and all sorts of important things like that, but the first new thing I remember learning in kindergarten was that there were years. Everyday our teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, would say something like “the date today is September _ _ , nineteen-ninety-one.” And I would think, “I KNOW it’s September, you fool, I’ve been waiting for this since May, but what the heck is this nineteen-ninety-one business?”

Years. YEARS. This September will be my 24th since that first month in kindergarten, and once again I am going back to school (this time for the second year of my masters degree). In elementary school (and let’s face it, even junior high and high school) I could not contain my excitement. When the back-to-school flyers came in the mail I would spread them out and practically weep over the beautiful coloured pens and binders advertised in the pages. Every year meant at least one “back to school” outfit. Every year meant maybe THIS year I’d be top of the honour roll (never happened due to lack of Math and Phys Ed skills), maybe THIS year I’d be popular, or finally grow boobs, or have a boyfriend, or whatever. The night before my first day of grade seven (which is the first year of high school in Saskatchewan) I couldn’t sleep–I had too much adrenaline coursing through my veins, and too many soaring expectations (I did not have another sleepless night like this again until the night before my wedding last year). Every school year brought the promise of learning things and doing things and seeing my friends and having fun.

And every school year brought some disappointment. Now that I’m an adult, I’m not entirely sure why I found so many of my classes to be so tedious (at this stage in my life I’d jump at the chance to spend each and every day receiving a free education with no worries about paying for food or housing), or why I cared about the opinions of people who weren’t my friends, or why I would have wanted a scrawny, khaki-wearing, squeaky-voiced junior high boyfriend had the opportunity for having one presented itself to me. But did care about those things, SO BADLY, and so of course, being the strange, sensitive, hyperactive young grasshopper I was, whose wild expectations far exceeded the realities of both her location and her talents, I would find myself disappointed. I wanted to return to school each year a superstar, and instead, I’d return as just another normal kid.

BUT. Every summer brought the promise of change, and every summer would bring the quiet excited whispers on the cooling breeze: This year will be different. This year will be different. I couldn’t help myself. I loved to dream.

And you know what? Each year was different, of course, though not in the ways I usually expected, and each year was also the same. There were fun days and boring days and hard days and easy days and days where I would write angrily in my journal that nobody liked me and my skin was disgusting and days I could have leaped up a mountainside I was so happy. My friendships were so strong then and my dreams were too–untethered, touchable, breathable. They felt like when you close your eyes in the morning and the sunlight warms your lids. They smelled like frost and iron stair railings. They buzzed like empty hallways buzz, when all the other kids have gone home and you’re waiting for drama practice to start or for your teacher-dad to finish whatever he’s doing so you can get a ride home with him instead of taking the bus, and you feel alone but also courageous and full of promise.

Education (not just the act of learning but the physical institutions and accoutrements that accompany it) has been one of the most influential forces in my life. Although I’m a little wistful that my long, quiet summer is almost over, I’m not very surprised that I decided to keep going to school, or to find myself back here once again, quietly humming, This year, this year.

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One thought on “Back to School (the magic and the whimsy)

  1. Oh how I can identify with your sentiments about school. I was so thrilled to start Kindergarten and scoffed at crybabies who would not leave their mothers ” what are they crying about , this is so great?” I had around 50 years of the night before the “first day back at school” and I still miss the anticipation and sometimes terror. Each year brought new experiences and learning. Enjoy each new school year as they come. (Love the photo- I have a similar one of T.C.)

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