Back to School: When School Supplies Trigger a Wealth of Memories


Photo by David Pennington on Unsplash

By Lian Dolan

It’s back-to-school season! How do I know? The first sign arrives on the fifth of July when Target replaces the flag-themed merchandise with rows of lunch boxes and binders, officially signaling the end of carefree days watching clouds, eating frozen treats, and ushering in the annual race to Get All the Stuff on the School Supply List. Hey, kids, you’ve had two weeks of summer, let’s gear up again! For the rest of July, marketers remind us that back to school, or BTS in their lingo, is just around the corner and parents better start stocking up now or miss out on what I’m not exactly sure. Will the nation actually run out of No. 2 pencils at some point? Is there a khaki skort shortage I don’t know about?

Everyone wants in on the frenzy, not just the folks who put out the Sunday circulars. I like the desperate PR pitches for BTS season in my inbox at Satellite Sisters, my podcast. Publicists want to know if we’re interested in talking to a three-star chef about school lunches.  (Only if they come to my house and prepare them.) How about the scoop on the latest in backpack technology? Pro tip for publicists: The only way a conversation about backpack technology would be interesting to a podcast audience is if backpack technology were falsely accused of a grisly crime and Richard Simmons broke the backpack technology out of prison.

As an empty-nester parent, with one son out in the real world and another finishing college this year and no longer needing me to make those turkey-and-cheese-on-white-bread sandwiches he ate for 13 straight years (Take that, three-star chef!), I can say I don’t miss a single aspect of back-to-school shopping. I did my time searching for the mythical three-hole punch and I cede that quest to the next generation of parents. As I recall, the thrill of a fresh box of crayons wears away quickly and the drudgery of early wake-up times, misplaced homework, and flashcard Fridays sets in. It’s a grind, Hello Kitty lunch box and all, and no amount of backpack technology can make geometry understandable.

But as a former student, I do miss learning new stuff. Every September, I’m wistful thinking about the rush that the possibility of knowledge brings. There’s nothing like walking into an unfamiliar classroom, filled with that special mix of anticipation and fear over what treasures might await in American history or English lit or, you know, shapes and colors if you’re in kindergarten.

I remember my sons’ middle school principal saying that it’s good for kids to be shaken and stirred a bit, forced to step up effort from one grade to another. As grownups, we can coast for years before anyone marks us down as “needs improvement” on our permanent record. I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner, thanks to my extensive collection of magazine subscriptions, from The New Yorker to Sports Illustrated to Cooking Light, but it’s been a while since I’ve actually entered a classroom and been judged by peers and profs. Even a really clever “Talk of the Town” piece doesn’t match up to the challenge of a freshly printed syllabus.

So I took a look at the course catalog of our local gem, Pasadena City College. I was perusing my search options—Architecture, Astronomy, Art—but stopped scrolling when I came across a category called Older Adult Classes. How old is older? I had considered myself more in the “postgrad” category but am I really an “older adult”? I clicked on the offerings. Sewing Techniques for Older Adults popped up, and the disturbing image of that sad, sad pillow I sewed in home ec in seventh grade flooded my brain. It was light-green gingham with a lace ruffle, and it was a disaster. The lowest single grade I ever received in school was in that sewing class. I’m not old enough to forget that, I tell ya. If I go back to school, I’m going for something sexier than sewing.

That’s when the course “French Culture and Communication” caught my eye. My French is very rusty, as I proved on a recent trip to Paris where I repeatedly asked waiters for the plate instead of the check. Technically, this wasn’t a class for older adults, but certainly a subject where being a woman of a certain age might be an asset. Perhaps this time around, I’d truly appreciate the Gallic nuances I might have missed as a sophomore in high school more interested in that cute guy Greg sitting one desk over as opposed to the writings of Collette. By the way, does Chanel make a backpack?

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