Back to school was always an exciting time for me as a child. This was partly because I genuinely enjoyed school; the long days of summer gave me all the time in the world to ride my bike and play with friends or (more often then not) curl up with a book, but I liked getting back to the classroom and starting to find out what a new year would bring in terms of teachers and fellow students and things to be learned.
A large part of the attraction of back to school was, however, back to school supplies themselves. I must have been an odd child, because while toy stores and candy shops and other emporia of child-related wonders were all very well, I really, really loved stationery stores.
I couldn’t say why, but let me loose in a stationery store with a list of what school supplies I needed and I was about as happy as it’s possible for someone who’s not old enough to legally drive to be. Looking back on it, I think a large part of the appeal was the sheer possibility embodied in all the crisply sharpened pencils with perfectly intact erasers on the end, like glistening pearls; the crayons which hadn’t yet been broken and battered, their labels torn and tattered; the serried ranks of Laurentian pencil crayons (it had to be Laurentian) standing to attention in their box.
Every sheaf of crisp white paper, each pristine notebook, was a literal tabula rasa, a blank slate on which could be drawn and printed and later written in struggling cursive … anything. Anything at all. There was something about duo-tangs which made me feel unutterably grown up: they had a business-like quality to them, with their thin metal fasteners, which crayons simply did not possess.
The compass set, in its tin box, was redolent of mystery and a hint of magic, suggesting arcane secrets which were beyond human comprehension, and properly the realm of mages and seers and wizards. Despite the best efforts of a string of mathematics teachers over the years, I have to admit that they still retain many of these qualities for me, which — given that I have never had to use these tools in my adult life — is not necessarily a bad thing.
As I grew older, the items on that back to school supplies list changed slightly. When I left behind schools where students sat at the same desk all day, every day, and were thus able to keep all their items in one place, pencil cases and backpacks became necessary. Pencils gave way to pens — another step towards grownup-dom! — and crayons were dropped altogether, although I was glad that pencil crayons (Laurentian, of course) were still needed, mostly for drawing on and colouring in maps in Geography class, which I loved to do, maps being another one of my favourite things. If you had plunked me in a stationery store and then given me some maps, I would have been the happiest person in the world.
The supply lists were also reassuring. Children crave stability, and there was something soothing in the very monotony of what we needed to arm ourselves with each September. For the most part the list was full of mundane items, but every now and then something different would spring up and stand out, a peacock in a flock of chickens: a box of reinforcements, for example (kids, ask your parents or grandparents), or a single hole punch. My high school biology teacher requested that we bring 4H pencils, the extra hard leads necessary for our technical drawings; standard HB pencils simply would not do.
It’s been many years since I bought school supplies for myself, and several years since I bought them for my son, and every September I realize, with a soft pang of something like sadness, that a part of me misses it, and all the promise of things yet to be learned. I hope Laurentian pencil crayons are still out there; if they aren’t, please don’t tell me. Igorance is bliss, and I’d prefer not to know.