A lesson in life's essentials unravels

A couple of weeks back, my teenage son approached me with the urgent request that I take him out for "school clothes."I have to admit that I was, for a moment, at a loss for words.I hadn't heard the expression "school clothes" since I was a kid.

"Alyosha," I finally offered, "you have more clothing than the crown prince of an island nation. "Why don't you just wear what you have?"

Alyosha threw up his hands."You don't understand," he said, wistfully, and gazed off into the distance.

Actually, he had it right.I'm not sure what role school clothing plays in these free-wheeling days when students move from the street to the halls of academia without so much as doffing their ever-present ball caps.

When I was in grammar school during the 1960s, there was a clear delineation between school clothes and so-called "play clothes."In fact, my mother had it down to a mantra.When I came home from school, she'd automatically greet me with, "Don't forget to change into your play clothes."

One day, I had the temerity to come home from school, dump my books on the porch, and join a game of stickball - in my school clothes!My mom was out the door in a flash, hand on heart, pulling me out of the game with a desperation normally reserved for air raids.

For the record, my school clothing consisted of slacks - not jeans - with cuffs that were turned down year-by-year as I grew, a collared shirt, black oxfords, and the occasional tie.To complete the young scholar effect, my mother pomaded my thick, thick hair back with a tidal wave of Vitalis that hardened to a shiny, helmet-like shell.

In retrospect, it made sense.Before there were malls, video games, personal computers, and VCRs, school was just about the only show in town.More that this, it was the way out for children of working-class families, a chance to achieve what had evaded our parents as a result of economic depression and the war that followed.

In this light, parents honored the idea of school by gussying up their kids, as a way of making them mindful that in changing from street clothes to school clothes, they were moving from a world of play to one of earnest hard work that would, in the end, pay off.

Things have certainly changed.When my son goes off to school in the morning, I watch as he merges with the horde of his peers, outfitted in tank tops, shorts, sandals, and jeans being dragged beneath their heels.

(Dad to Alyosha: "But they're destroying their own clothes!" Alyosha to Dad: "But it's the style, Dad!")

Perhaps I am hopelessly behind the times, the ant with high hopes trying to push the rubber tree plant (I can't recall if the little creature succeeded).And yet I'm haunted by a story from grammar school involving school clothes.

Most of the children I went to school with were fromhomes where nickels were scarce.There was a boy in my seventh-grade class who wore the same green sweater every day.It was growing threadbare around the elbows, but always seemed clean and was not pilling.

One day, at recess, we were playing dodgeball in the schoolyard.As Michael ran by me, I was, for some reason, inspired to reach out and grab him by the hem of his sweater.The garment ripped wide open, and both Michael and I froze, our mouths wide open. I could see he wanted to cry, and all I could do was offer a weak apology.Then the bell rang.

To the credit of the child that I was, I told Michael I'd get him another sweater.He took this news home to his parents, but the next day told me that they said it was OK, I didn't have to do that.

I have told this story to my son, as a way of emphasizing that there is a difference between needs and desires. But it's so hard to get this message across to a teenager whose alternate address is the shopping mall.

I thought I had won the battle of the school clothes when I told Alyosha that he should wear the perfectly sound, clean clothes that he has to school.It was at this juncture that he reminded me about the approach of his birthday.

Shifting gears to that subject, I asked him what he wanted for a gift.He turned to me and grinned."A new shirt, a pair of jeans, sneakers, and a new ball cap."

Somehow, at some level, I think I've been taken.

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