The reminders are everywhere: back-to-school bargains, stacks of notebooks, pencil sharpeners, book bags, loose-leaf notebooks, pens, paper, rulers. Every place you go there's another indispensable item.
All, of course, for the kids. School again; no more lolling around in the summer sun; time to get back to business. Yet if all this hoopla is meant for them, my own sample of two sons suggests that they barely notice.
Eric the second grader is, of course, a veteran. It's as if he has been doing this all his life: first, pre-pre-nursery; then, pre-nursery; finally, nursery. Second grade is anticlimactic. "I'm growing bored with summer," he announces. "I can't wait to go back."
Alan, four years his junior, just entering his first five-day-a-week program, is not about to let big brother outdo him. He's cruising around on his Big Wheel and pointing out his new school to anyone who will listen.
Perhaps the trauma of it all has not yet registered. Or maybe all this nonchalance is a studied act, a bluff to cover up deeper anxieties. Even if you're 3 1/2, you can hardly keep face among peers if you collapse into hysterics at the first whiff of school.
Or it just might be all the carrying on at this time of year is for parents. I used to think that I as a father was exempt. Men do not fret about details. They go off to work and leave the dirty work to mothers.
But it hasn't worked out that way.
Perhaps it's a sign of our no-sex-role era, or the simple mechanics of our own two-career household. Or maybe the back-to-school syndrome is a myth. Whatever, I find myself with a case of the butterflies, and the further I leave my own school career behind, the worse those butterflies get.
Somewhere in the distant past, I vaguely recall being just like my sons. First day of school meant new pencils, clean notebooks, fresh books. Later in the year the shine would wear off. But at the beginning of September there was all that wonder and anticipation. You were expected to let out a groan because summer was over, but that was for the adults.
Now I am an adult. The groan is real and audible.
Take all those administrative items that trail along with the opening of school -- details invisible to a child, yet demanding instant attention. If they are not dealt with, everything will surely grind to a halt. Indeed, in a household such as ours -- every day a high-wire act -- even the most insignificant item carries the threat of a potential catastrophe.
There is the car pool. Elementary democracy run amok, everybody accommodating everybody else, nobody really pleased. Somehow when the organizing is all over, there is still that one afternoon when nobody can drive, when you're left with the nagging fear that come nightfall your kid will be waiting on the school step.
And then there are all those after-school things: soccer, gymnastics, kick ball, music, drama. There is also the problem of getting him over to a friend's house. Nothing, of course, is within walking range.
And there are the P-TA meetings, teacher conferences, homework, days when someone gets sick or hurt, snow days, days when one child is in school and the other is not. The details swarm at you like a plague of gnats. Solve one problem and another will take its place.
Yet all of this is mere window dressing. Take it all away, and I'd still feel a knot in my stomach.
Come September, and there is a part of me that yearns to be back in school again. As I watch Eric with his new lunch box and his pencils, I try to imagine myself back in second grade. What would it be like to be learning reading, writing, arithmetic for the first time?
I try to remember my second-grade teacher, my friends, my enemies. Where are they all now? I try to remember what it was like to have all my dreams so effortlessly in front of me that they did not even seem to be dreams.
Of course, now I am a parent, a facilitator.
I want to convey to my sons the excitement of learning. I also want them to "make something of themselves." But it's poor taste, insensitive and, above all, destructive to foist your own wrinkled dreams on your children.
My role is to stay in the background.
But the truth is: On that first day, after I take Alan inside and introduce him to his new teacher, I wouldn't mind settling down with a few building blocks and staying for awhile.