FAMILY MATTERS
7:35 am
Wed August 7, 2013

Christmas in August, Or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation Money

Calvin (in the chair), along with Genevieve, Somerset and Joshua Alley look over the bounty from their back-to-school shopping spree.
Calvin (in the chair), along with Genevieve, Somerset and Joshua Alley look over the bounty from their back-to-school shopping spree.
Credit Richard Alley

It’s Christmas in August. The temperature hovering close to 90 degrees doesn’t testify to this. But the ringing of the cash register does. Another telltale sign? The children’s palpable sense of diminished expectations. 

Back to school time is Christmas without the merry.

That’s how parents view it, of course. For children, the thought of being allowed to accompany us to the Wal-Marts and Targets as we hunt for school supplies is like being given a private tour of Santa’s workshop.

Our elves – Calvin, Joshua, Somerset and Genevieve – represent 10th, 7th, 6th and 2nd grades, respectively. 

Stores are resplendent this time of year with institutional decorations and eye-catching displays. They point in the direction of gifts that are new, shiny and completely utilitarian. We’re looking for pencils, number 2s, of course. Binders. Folders. Crayons. Spiral notebooks. And that prize, the X-box of school supplies: the glue stick.

Somerset and her younger sister Genevieve try to pick out the right backpack for the right amount of books.
Somerset and her younger sister Genevieve try to pick out the right backpack for the right amount of books.
Credit Richard Alley

It’s only a matter of days before the first tardy bell rings and my wife, Kristy, and I attach ourselves to a reindeer we’ve named Procrastinator. We’ve waited until Tennessee’s tax-free weekend to hit the Target on a Friday night.

Once in the front door, the store seems surprisingly vacant. As we make our way to the back, though, to the deepest circle of Dante’s retail, we find ourselves in a chaotic symphony of school supplies.

With four school-age children, back-to-school shopping is an adventure -- a scavenger hunt with our children running interference. 

We’re not new to this game. We’ve been on this aisle before – the one with the decimated shelves and the once-neat rows of Bic pens. We know that it’s better to overload than to under-plan; kids lose things, it’s what they’re genetically predisposed to do. Reserves are essential.

We’re going to need a bigger basket.

A shopping list for a family of four children.
A shopping list for a family of four children.
Credit Richard Alley

We’ve made a list and the kids have checked it twice. It’s a hand-written page with the required, and the probable, items needed for a decent public school education. Fifteen-year-old Calvin dutifully calls out the next item while ticking away the prizes we’ve scavenged already.

This year’s prize is the backpack, the last vestige of visible personality allowed for uniform-clad students these days. They are multi-colored, have intricate patterns, super hero logos and Angry Birds. As parents, the only thing that matters is size and whether they are big enough to carry the loads these kids will be burdened with all year.

Once finished, we wend our way to the check-out line with a sense of accomplishment. And a sense of dread.

After an hour-and-a-half, we find ourselves hitched again to Procrastinator laden with our tax-free spoils. The total cost of sending four kids to three different Shelby County public schools loaded with all they’ll need: $443.91.

Whose job was it to buy the calculator?