When I was a child and summer break was drawing to a close, mom would take my sister and me to buy school supplies. My love for this was intense. It signaled beginnings — a new school year, new teachers, a fresh start.
But I also loved it because it made me feel organized.
After the supplies were arranged on my bed I’d open the package of file dividers and put them in my new spiral-ringed notebook then put sheets of rule-lined paper in each section.
Each package of scissors, school paste, rubber erasers, pencils and pens would be opened and put into the see-through bag with three holes on the side. Packing everything “just so” and visible inside the plastic meant… what, exactly? I wish I knew. But it gave me a rush. Lastly, I’d secure the supply bag into the binder and close it.
Then I’d kneel beside my bed and open the notebook slowly. I’d unzip the bag and pretend to remove something I needed. I’d open a tab so I was looking at a thin stack of gleaming white pages.
On the first day of class, we were issued our textbooks. The First State Bank in Liberty provided book covers made from brown paper like grocery sacks.
The covers had dotted lines in the corners you cut with scissors then turned over onto glued edges that needed to be licked. The process was rather laborious, which explained why most students just folded the ends down and were done with it. But not me. I wanted to cover my books correctly.
Once all of my textbooks were done I would stack them atop one another. The monochromatic brown of the perfectly done covers… heaven, sheer heaven.
And I still like things when they’re freshly organized (despite my problem with remaining organized.)
It creates anticipation. When everything is neatly in place, anything is possible.
This week was the opening of the Fall semester at the college. I don’t buy school supplies anymore but I do have Getting Prepared rituals.
I carry a shoulder bag on campus. It holds the textbooks for my classes, a three-ring spiral notebook where I keep grade books, attendance records, syllabi and handouts.
But the shoulder bag I’ve used for years fell apart on my last night in Quito, Ecuador. (When I travel I pack lightly — a carry-on and a shoulder bag.) The zippers wouldn’t zip; the edges lost their sewn binding. I wrapped one of my belts around it; some of my T-shirts could be seen from the sides. I looked like Jed Clampett on my way to the airport.
Back at home, I bought a nice leather bag for my trip to Paris. Four weeks later I was waiting in line to board the flight from Barcelona to Tangier and the shoulder strap pulled completely out. The bag dropped to the floor with a loud thud. I had to carry it by the handle for the next three weeks before I made it back home.
Then I threw it away. While in Vancouver I found a bag constructed of safety belt straps by a woman who salvaged them from junked cars. She’d sewn them with an industrial sewing machine. It’s the sturdiest bag I’ve ever seen. Cleverly, it snaps shut with a safety belt buckle.
And so last week I carefully arranged my books, pens, whiteboard markers and other supplies into my new shoulder bag. And loved the organization and the promises it holds.
Forty-five years after those long ago back-to-school days and I’m doing the very same thing.
We like to believe we’re no longer children and all grown up. But the older I get, the more I question this idea. Am I really so radically changed?
I still enjoy that feeling of leaving the library with a big stack of books; I’m still devoted to reading. I love waking up in the morning to the sound of rain. I still drink V-8 all the time, like I used to do with my friend Karen before band practice. When something really wonderful happens in my life (and I’m alone at home) I still jump up and down.
I’m a balding middle-aged man with many years separating me from that child attending elementary school in Hardin, Texas.
But maybe not so different after all. The thought gives me an odd kind of thrill.