Spending some time in the city centre last year, I was jolted back twenty years as I overheard a conversation.
“You want that? For school? Hmm. You know what. Fine…”
As a teenager gleefully carried the zip up tunic dress to the cash desk I had a sneaky smile at the mother and daughter doing battle over school uniform. There were similar discussions going on all over Dundee city centre last week as debates were had over sweatshirt or cardigan, shirts or polo-shirts and of course trainers or shoes!
I remember a love-hate feeling about the Back to School shop. I hated that it was advertised from the minute the school bell rang on the last day of term when all I wanted to think about was sunshine, watching ‘Saved by the Bell’ and eating Pop Tarts for breakfast. I did not like the queue in Clarks Shoes when I was at primary school, or the over-heated schoolwear department of Marks and Spencer. As I got older I took more of an interest because it became much more important to get it just right – grey or black skirt (never trousers!), fitted shirts (my mum hated those) and of course backpack or tote bag?! I think I usually got it right – but for the year before and everyone else had moved on. Never mind, it wasn’t a fashion show as I was always reminded. The real place I could show flair was in Woolworths.
The best part of Back to School, consistently over the years, was the stationery shop. The detail in this part gets very geeky. Choosing a new pencil case which would eventually get covered in Smash Hits stickers, the ‘right’ type of pens and of course clicky pencils! Trends would come and go – Zig and Zag, Coca-Cola merchandise, Disney princesses, Take That, furry, giant pencils and tins. You would need pencils, pens, a ruler, eraser (never, ever say ‘rubber’ in front of a 12-year-old), sharpener and as you got older a protractor, scientific calculator, compass, a Trig set and if you were extra-fancy a Tippex mouse. If you were feeling controversial you could experiment with different coloured Biros. I always liked writing in pink and underlining in purple. It was OK in English, but never in History.
My mum would make sure I had packed my bag the night before school starts. You needed increasingly more stuff as you got older. Gym kits would include trainers rather than sandshoes (or plimsolls as I now know they are really called). Then there was a Tupperware with 50p and an apron in it for Home Economics. I spent a few years playing the viola so that would need to be carried. Then, of course, whatever I was taking for lunch. At that point, I would regret any misguided attempt to be stylish when a handbag or record bag strap would tear strips out of my shoulders and I would covet a backpack with thick and padded straps.
When the new year started the teacher would hand out clean, new jotters. You would get a new homework diary that would start very neat and organised before the spiral binding would become undone, the corners would get dog-eared and inevitably a yoghurt would burst over it. Sometimes you would have to cover a jotter or textbook and out came leftover wallpaper, posters or wrapping paper from a drawer somewhere.
Even now, I can’t walk past a Back to School aisle in the supermarket. I love to browse at the stationary and reminisce. I love the timelessness of a Staedtler set. They do the best pencils. Unicorns still seem to be strong for 2018/19. I think drink cans are back in a retro way. I notice now that you can get Sharpie sets – that would definitely have been ‘bumped’ before Registration was over.
The ritual of it all appeared to my sense of starting over. A whole new year. New things. New possibilities. A chance to be smarter, cooler and better. New teachers. New projects. New subjects. Sometimes new friends. I thought it was exciting. School had its moments of despair but when I opened a new jotter, used a ruler to make a margin and wrote the date with a newly-sharpened pencil, I was optimistic.
I think that’s what the Back to School aisle says to me, even though now I am closer to sending my son to school than I am to going myself, with a new pencil and a new jotter, you can always start over. Maybe I’ll throw in a pencil case too.