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CALUM MARSH: Back-to-school shopping may be a horror for adolescents, but it's often the parent who bears an unspoken burden

"I couldn’t have put this into words at the time, but I was aware, at the age of 12, that a back-to-school haul was a referendum on both the taste and means of the student."
"I couldn’t have put this into words at the time, but I was aware, at the age of 12, that a back-to-school haul was a referendum on both the taste and means of the student."

I still think of the beginning of September as its own new year, an invisible line that divides the summer from the start of something more serious, exciting and daunting at the same time

In the boys’ department at Zellers, I dragged my feet among revolving racks of khaki pants and short-sleeve shirts, pouting. I was 12, and I didn’t like anything. My mother, ignoring my exhortations to abandon the enterprise and take us home, rifled through the displays undeterred, occasionally plucking a hopeful item up and holding it aloft on its hanger for me to inspect; I would only shrug, churlishly, and continue sulking.

I had been imploring her for weeks to bring me to the store — to embark on that all-important ritual, back-to-school shopping. But what I’d envisioned was the mall, with its coveted name-brand shops and peer-approved fashions. Having arrived instead at Zellers, with its air of bleak economy, it seemed to me that my mother had committed an outrageous offence, and I resented her for it.

“What about this?” she asked, pressing a t-shirt with some ribald joke emblazoned across it against my chest, eyeballing the fit. I hardly even looked, making an exaggerated show of my disinterest. Though not in the least a fashionable child, I rejected these clothes instinctively, as if in social self-preservation, because they reeked of thrift. My mother didn’t seem to understand how much was at stake. All of this — the new outfits and accessories, the backpacks and the lunch-boxes, the binders and the pencil cases — would in some obscure way set the tone for the school year, and I yearned to be equipped to make an immediate, positive impression. Moping in that Zellers, I felt I was being furnished to fail.

Back to school, the beginning of September: No other time of year besides Christmas felt so clearly defined to me growing up. It had its own mood and feeling, capable of arousing fits of imaginative anxiety and clenched anticipation. The first appearance — on TV or on the car radio some unassuming afternoon — of a commercial for back-to-school shopping could spontaneously herald the end of the summer and the freedom from routine one too briefly enjoyed. You might be lounging on the sofa eating ice cream, half-watching a daytime soap or movie matinee, when suddenly notebooks and pencil crayons would fill the screen, and an urgent call to rush to the nearest Wal-Mart for stationery before it’s too late would jolt you out of the carefree torpor in which you had been undisturbed since June.

Back to school. The power those words had to frighten and excite, to thrill or unnerve. The beginning of school in September is how we first learn to divide the calendar, our first concrete example of how time follows a pattern, according to an overarching cycle. Though we celebrate the new year with our families in January, it is really the coming of school, each September, when we start to understand intuitively, as repetition establishes subconsciously a kind of familiar rhythm. In the same way we come to appreciate the meaning of the changing leaves or the year’s first snowfall, we quickly learn to greet the back-to-school season as a sign or marker of something more, sensing in its arrival a wealth of vivid associations. The same but different, every year. Same friends, new teacher. Same classes, new lessons. Same you, new clothes.

Glum and bratty, in the harsh lighting of the Zellers fitting room, I reluctantly squeezed myself into a pair of black track pants, not actually Adidas but in the same style. This was 1998; I was about to enter the eighth grade, my final year, I was astonished to keep remembering, of elementary school. Shane McMahon, a wrestler and the son of WWF chairman Vince McMahon, often wore black track suits on the wrestling show Monday Night Raw , and though he was characterized as a sort of villain, I identified for some reason with his puckish swagger, and thought perhaps I could cultivate a little of it with a track suit of my own. I stepped out to show my mother, suppressing my pleasure.

“This, I like,” she said, although it seemed to me she had liked everything so far, including the dozens of things I’d refused to even try on.

“It’s fine,” I muttered, already imagining my grand entrance to the schoolyard the following week, thinking of the way McMahon strutted out toward the ring on TV.

“So, we’ll take this one, and the black shirt,” my mother told the woman overseeing the fitting room, as she handed over various items I’d discarded. “Alright,” she said to me, scrutinizing the tag on the suit as she stuffed it into a shopping basket, “let’s have a look at the school supplies.”

I could hardly believe it. That was all? Watching television that morning, I’d listened with interest to the cheerful host of a segment for kids on the ins and outs of the back-to-school season as he offered advice about etiquette. “Make sure you don’t wear all of your back-to-school clothes right away,” he had cautioned. “It’s better to spread your new outfits out so they last longer.” I’d planned to practice the lesson. Yet here we were, leaving the clothing department, shopping completed, with only one outfit. “I only got one thing!” I all but wailed, surprising my mother. She looked at me seriously. “Calum,” she said. “We’ve been here all afternoon, and you haven’t liked anything.”

Unable to articulate the obvious injustice, I slumped back into moody silence as we whisked the shopping basket to the stationery aisle. I braced myself for disappointment. One of the strangest things about back-to-school shopping is the way that it makes you keenly interested in the quality of goods that for the remainder of the year you couldn’t care less about.

In thrall to the magic of the season, the difference between a plain plastic three-ring binder and a deluxe Five Star zipper binder draped in fabric is enormous, unignorable; ruled notebooks, graph paper, flash cards, sketch pads, file folders, permanent markers, mechanical pencils, highlighters and ballpoint pens all seem, standing in the aisle with an entire school year ahead of you, to demand the best. As my mother reached without hesitation for the budget versions of each item, I thought ruefully of the dazzling stationery friends and classmates would no doubt have.

I couldn’t have put this into words at the time, but I was aware, at the age of 12, that a back-to-school haul was a referendum on both the taste and means of the student. Kids are unusually sensitive to differences in class backgrounds, and they can be amazingly cruel when one among them is judged to come up short. What pens and papers a child comes to school with the first day, not to mention what new ensembles he or she has to show off, tells their classmates more about their family’s place in the social order than the size of their house or what their parents do for a living. Yet, curiously, it never quite seemed to be about money , which was complex and defied comprehension — it was rather about identity, or perhaps appearances. Like so much in childhood, what seemed important above all was fitting it.

I needed back-to-school shopping to prove to myself that we were not poor. I had no idea that we really were poor; it was a decade later that my mother revealed to me, with lingering shame, that we were on social assistance, barely scraping by. It is embarrassing, looking back on my attitude then: My petulance and entitlement — thinking it was out of miserliness that my mother brought us to Zellers to buy clothes rather than an upscale store in the mall, that she was being ungenerous by buying me only one new outfit, that it was wildly unfair for me to be stuck with plain binders and cheap notebooks and pens.

I thought my mother didn’t understand how much was at stake for me back-to-school shopping. What I didn’t understand was how taxing it was on her — that the new clothes and school supplies that seemed essential to me were in truth a needless, frivolous burden.

Earlier in the summer, I slept over at my friend Cory’s house, and late that evening, as Cory and I were playing video games in his bedroom, Cory’s mom came in with some clothes. She’d bought them for Cory, she said, but they didn’t fit; she thought I might like to have them instead. It never occurred to me that she had bought these clothes for me expressly, and was too embarrassed or tactful to admit to her charity. If I’d suspected her motive, I’m sure I would have been furious and humiliated. It’s amazing the stigma around poverty for children, who are trained to regard the less fortunate with contempt from an early age, without knowing why or quite for what reason. These feelings, latent every day on the schoolyard, were brought to the fore by the back-to-school shopping ritual, when so much came down to appearances.

In line at the Zellers checkout, I doubt I said thank you. I was too busy thinking ahead to the first day of eighth grade, worried about whether my back-to-school outfit would set the right tone, whether the new pens and papers would make the right impression. My mother was going over figures in her head, calculating whether this back-to-school excursion had cost too much.

Of course, had she explained to me the strain this shopping was putting on her finances, had she expressed how difficult it could be to get by on the wages from her customer-service job and the child support payments from my father, I wouldn’t have dared sounded upset, and in fact probably would have insisted on going home with less. But I know now that my mother was insulating me from the reality of that strain — that keeping me in the dark about our problems with money was nearly as important as keeping me suitably clothed.

Back-to-school shopping, and the back-to-school season more broadly, continues to have some purchase over my imagination, as the feeling I still get this time of year makes apparent. I still think, vaguely, of the beginning of September as its own new year, an invisible line that divides the summer from the start of something more serious, exciting and daunting at the same time. And I still think of that pressure, complicated and immense, to spend money and look right, to prove yourself once and for all — to get a new wardrobe together, pointlessly, in a bid to make a seasonal reentrance.

Most of all, though, it reminds me of my mother, and how hard she tried to provide. Preparing me for another year, outfitting me with everything necessary to get a little older, she was also doing the invisible, rather thankless work of preventing me from learning too much and from growing up too fast.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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