The annual rite - back to school

The last of the sand has been shaken from the sweatshirts. The haircuts are fresh, the bedrooms organized. The summer's last, sweaty game of neighborhood kick-the-can has been played, to be imitated next year, perhaps, but never recaptured.

Your own homework is pretty much done, save for the inch-thick packet of forms to be filled out. There are permissions, releases, volunteer requests, phone numbers - the world's last remaining bank of data not saved from year to year. Whoops, there's the T-shirt order form. And the telephone chain. Ah, and the wrapping-paper fundraiser.

Some years, back-to-school brings more freedom than others. With the first-grader now gone for seven-hour days, for instance, you can stroll the supermarket aisles blessedly alone. Except that you have to avoid the deli lady, whose asking after your absent little one would unleash emotion that's barely staying in check as it is. Who wants to pick out ice cream alone?

You recall once running into a similarly afflicted friend who had just left her oldest at college for the first time. Sooner than you had ever planned, you were following in her footsteps, returning home to an empty bedroom frighteningly neat, and a bellowing silence that was entirely new to the house. It's good not to have these significant back-to-school years too often. They open a chasm in the heart, and plant there a great cry that never finds a time or place big enough to let it out.

Back-to-school isn't so much about missing the children's company. After all, sometimes each other's company is a little better for the missing. Rather, it's hard not to think of the parenting you never got to. It's the stuff you missed because the roofer needed your attention and the checks had to be written. Didn't you mean to teach them to cook? What about the zinnia garden? Weren't you going to laugh more? Because of all that, there's now the temptation to inject a little summer into the school year - downplay the essential importance of equations, maybe, or play hooky once a quarter.

Some years, back-to-school is just about shopping, albeit more techy shopping than many parents remember. Where there once was a little plastic pencil case, there are now the laptop, the books ordered on line, the PDA, the cafeteria swipe cards.

Each year, what prompts the parental "no," or the "not yet" changes, moving from the highlights to the extra piercing, to the personal automobile. The cellphone, of course, has become ubiquitous, ("Mom how am I going to call you if I need you?"), but tradition offers occasional relief. Standard-issue school shoes, for instance, are forever serious - something that ties, something to stabilize unruly feet that have been splayed out all summer in flip-flops.

A father once wrote that parents of a newly crawling baby are like air-traffic controllers, handing off responsibility to each other as the child propels itself from room to room. If that's so, then as time passes, home comes to resemble La Guardia Airport at the holidays. Children are more numerous, their schedules and friends and comings and goings continuous, their parents requiring precise focus in guiding their charges.

This is especially so in the revolving door that is summer. Kids appear blitzkrieg-style on and off the radar screen, and what little organized activity there is rarely takes more than an hour, before which and after which a ride is generally needed. This, while you're still rooting around for something that will make the chain stay on the neighbor's bike.

"Do you have a stamp for my thank-you note?" "What's there to eat?" "Can you drive over if his mom can pick up?" "What does nascent mean?"

The details of back-to-school simply add another layer of juggling to the activity on the screen. But today or tomorrow - just when you're at the top of your game - the screen will go blank. They're in school. In someone else's airspace. Now you can finally get something done.

But hey, you've got all year. Sit down. Have yourself a cup of coffee. Crack open the handy calendar that came in the big packet from the principal's office.

Wait a minute, is that a teachers' in-service next week - a day off already? And is Columbus Day so soon? Gee, what with the fall break and the parent-teacher conference recess, Thanksgiving might as well be tomorrow. You'd better get moving. That screen will soon be heating up again.

The phone.

"Hello?"

It's school.

"Yes, I guess I can be on the committee again."

"Call 12 people this afternoon?"

"We meet tonight?"

"Well, OK. Put me down. Bye-bye."

Argh.

Mary Beth McCauley is a freelance writer and mother of three.

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