“How about lined paper?” he said. “They’ll probably need some of that, right?”
I nodded sympathetically as we backed out of the driveway. “Sure,” I said, “might as well pick some up.” We drove in silence for a while before he blurted out, “And pencils. Mechanical pencils. Everyone needs those.”
I resisted the urge to point out that we had at least two unopened packs in the craft bin and that my strong hunch was that neither of our kids would need much more than a keyboard and monitor until at least December. Instead, I just nodded again. “Yup, better get some of those too. You never know.”
I could completely relate to his irrational urgency to buy school supplies, even if almost none will be needed this year. I could relate because my own love of back to school shopping has been known to verge on the obsessive. I mean honestly, what’s not to love? Row upon row of neatly stacked piles of paper standing sentry, ready for duty. Pens and markers of every conceivable colour nestled cozily in their plastic spheres, waiting patiently for just the right hands to pluck them from obscurity. Bright neon post its and highlighters battling it out for attention on the shelf, while the staplers maintain the quiet dignity that comes from knowing your purpose. Bin after bin of push pins, rulers, glue sticks, paper clips, sharpeners, erasers. For nerdy types like me, it’s better than the buffet at the Mandarin. Well, almost. And then there’s the notebooks. So many beautifully fresh notebooks. Honestly. I can’t even.
As we walked into the store and slowly followed the floor arrows to the back to school aisle, it struck me that the whole exercise was just our way of hanging on to a little bit of normal this fall. It was a way to remind ourselves that we will someday return to these time honoured rituals of return without the layers of dread and anxiety that have been our constant companion these last few weeks.
Like all parents, we wrestled with the back to school decision all summer. We went back and forth and back again, trying our best to follow the science and our guts, even if neither are particularly reliable right now. After the requisite amount of agonizing we settled on the virtual school option, but it could have easily went the other way, and still might. Our kids aren’t thrilled about it, but a few long talks about the need to make imperfect decisions with imperfect information has helped a little. If this year has taught my kids anything, it’s that there’s isn’t aways a right answer to everything. Sometimes all you can do is summon your courage and make the decision that feels the most right for your family, then commit to living as well as you can with the consequences. I wish it didn’t take a global pandemic to make this point, but it’s not an unimportant lesson. I’m so proud of the way our kids have accepted our imperfect decision-making with grace and ease, and I am grateful for their willingness to roll right along with the gong show that has been 2020.
As we gear up for whatever this fall will bring, it strikes me that we may need a different set of school supplies this year. Instead of the fancy lunch container, we might all be better off with a family size pack of patience and stamina. Instead of the three hole punch, we might want to pre-order a pound or two of resilience and an extra large sense of humour. This might be the year to skip the three pack of binders, and maybe even the notebooks (oh, the horror!) and start sharing our stories with each other. Maybe instead of another device, we invest more in trying to mirror back to one another the kind of love, acceptance and tolerance that we all are all craving in this stupid, difficult, relentless year.
Maybe this September, we can fill those shiny new backpacks with more awareness of how every single one of us is carrying around a story of the last few months, and some are a hell of a lot heavier than others. It might be also be a very good time to try to shift our gaze even a little beyond our own discomfort and fear and look for ways to move through this season of uncertainty with more compassion, more openness, and more joy. Our kids need it. Our teachers need it. Our neighbourhoods need it. The alternative is just so damn bleak, and I think this year has served up quite enough of that nonsense.
No matter what decision your family has made for this fall, know that it was exactly the right one. There is no right way to go back to school this year. So, grab that basket and fill it up as best you can with what you need, then line up the people you love who can help you carry it when the shit hits the fan, which it inevitably will. We’re all gonna need a little more kindness this year, so you might as well stock up now.
Oh, and don’t forget the pencils. Mechanical pencils. Because you just never know.