About a week before school started this year, a parental reflex kicked in and I asked my 13-year-old middle school daughter, "Don't we need to buy you school supplies?"
We had just gone shopping for clothes at a nearby outlet mall with my older daughter, who is 16, for some basics: Converse shoes, leggings, some school-appropriate shirts, plus socks and underwear. But I hadn't heard a word about protractors or notebook paper.
"Naw, they never ask for that stuff,” she told me from bed at 3 p.m., phone in her face while she FaceTimed friends. ”And I already have most of it.”
"Are you sure?" I asked, worriedly. I got on my own phone and looked up the school supply list for the district. For sixth to eighth grade, the list included things like "1 Stylus" (check), "1 Roll of Paper Towels" (weird, but I think we can swing that), "1 Personal Pencil Sharpener" (how personal?), and "3 Glue Sticks." I felt like I could open any sliding drawer in the house and find at least two glue sticks; it feels like we buy a half dozen every year for each of my kids and they never get used.
I stuck my phone in her face, in front of the other phone that was in her face. "Do you need any of these?"
She glanced for about half a second. "Composition books, I guess," she said. "I have everything else."
And she did. We ended up refreshing her backpack with a new one even though I thought the old one—a trusty JanSport—was in perfectly good condition. Yes, it was full of crumbs and sticky candy residue from dozens of after-school and intra-class snacking sessions, but otherwise it looked fine. Dad got overruled though, and the old backpack now lies under the bed, only to be used for mudslide rescues or hikes in the rain, I guess. The new backpack was ordered online and I didn't even know what it looked like until the delivery. All I had to do was approve the Amazon purchase. But that was pretty much it as far as new school supplies.
If I count each kid's school years separately, this is the 20th back-to-school for me and it's the first one I can remember where there was no sense of panic, or even anticipation. No scrambling to get to the store to fulfill that supply list. We've been through this before, lots of times, and have learned that much of the school-supply list is largely optional or meant to be a direct donation to classrooms struggling with resources.
The start of a school year, at least, gives you one more chance to try to get it right, to try to soak it all in and experience this part of parenting before that inevitable end.
I'm not going to lie: I miss the panic. As a parent, you want to promote stability and assuredness that everything is going to be fine, but there was something thrilling about the butterflies. About my daughters being terrified and thrilled at the same time that the first day of school was looming. What would they wear? What time would we leave in the morning? Would the teachers be nice? It all seemed so important.
Now, it's as if they treat the start of school like jaded adults treat a job they've been at for too long: as a necessary evil to get to the weekend of the next vacation. That's back-to-school now for them.
For me, I'm starting to understand that there are a lot fewer back-to-schools than we've passed. I can already see over the horizon the day that my eldest will be in college and then the day when they're both out of school entirely. I am sentimental about these things, and I can already feel the dam of emotion that's going to burst when a new school year rolls around and my daughters aren't going. I have premature empty nest feelings.
And that has manifested already in my feeling a sting of loneliness just from having them out of the house for school. Some parents celebrate when their kids go back to school. We definitely saw that when remote learning stopped and kids were no longer the sole responsibility of parents for each school day. But those feelings were complicated by a once-in-a-lifetime social phenomenon. Now, especially if you're able to work from home, it's more about having peace and quiet in the house during the day, of not having to find ways to entertain your children or keep them occupied all summer if they're not going to camps or have daycare. You might be relieved in a big way when the school bus comes and you don't have siblings yelling at each other over control of the big-screen TV or trying to invite their friends over for a mid-week sleepover that's going to keep everyone in the house up all night.
Graduations and the end-of-school-years feel so final; they're all about conclusions and goodbyes. The start of a school year, at least, gives you one more chance to try to get it right, to try to soak it all in and experience this part of parenting before that inevitable end.
Don't hate too much on back-to-school. You're going to miss it when it's all over.