Years ago, Staples had a back-to-school ad campaign that made my mother laugh out loud every time it aired. The commercial featured parents shopping for their kids’ school supplies in the style of a Broadway dance number – gliding their shopping carts down store aisles as if they were winged chariots, gleefully flinging notebooks and pencils and folders into their baskets. The visual was backed up by Andy Williams’ rendition of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” As a student, I wasn’t as tickled by the concept as my mother was, but it really did capture the sentiment of going back to school in America, and the symbols of a fresh start: Unsharpened pencils stacked in boxes; smooth pink erasers; reams of clean bright paper; shiny flat folders. Parents liberated from the tyrannies of summer.
As with most things, Britain is decidedly less frenzied about the major consumer gorges in which Americans seasonally and enthusiastically indulge. “Back to school” here is not defined by crowded office supply stores, jam-packed malls, and a blitz of ads touting big-box store discounts on backpacks and sneakers. Maybe it’s a function of the preceding season: British summer, meteorologically speaking, is not much different from British spring or British fall, and perhaps the absence of a clear natural demarcation, like a change in weather, blunts its inhabitants’ urge to change and prepare.
It could also be the simple reason that all the kids here wear uniforms, regardless of whether they attend state (public) or private school, and the fact that the schools supply the school supplies. Either way, “back to school,” or the most wonderful day of the year, if you will, almost didn’t happen for us when we arrived in England last year.
Before we moved, we knew our kids would be attending a state school, but we didn’t know which one: in our London borough, the schools rated highly by Ofsted (the government education standards agency) are severely oversubscribed, and it’s not a simple matter of moving to a neighborhood and registering with the public school assigned to that area as in most US school districts. New families must submit to a lengthy application process to multiple schools, then wait for a decision from the borough, an enrollment process that is agonizing for its pace (glacial) and logistical maneuvering (medieval). And because we applied before summer, we waited FOR THREE MONTHS.
The suspension was killing us. Jeff and I had casual, what-if conversations about the possibility of my homeschooling the kids. Just in case. The conversations always began with uproarious laughter. Can you imagine? we would say to each other. Then we would both get very quiet and start biting our nails. They have to get in somewhere, we would say. They can’t just not go to school. Someone would go to jail.
The call came the day before school started. Our children had gotten places at a local, excellently rated primary. Over the phone, I loosed a profusion of thanks-be-to-God’s and what-do-we-need-to-do’s; the administrator issued forth a barrage of semi-intelligible instructions. “Stevenson’s is where you go for uniform kit. P/E too, though you don’t have a house yet for your Year 4. We’ll have the school supplies sorted. Be here by nine; pick up at three-thirty. Oh. And will they be doing school dinner?”
“No,” I said uncertainly. “I’m picking them up at three-thirty. We don’t eat dinner until after six.”
“No, love. School dinner. The midday meal.”
Until that day, I’d believed that only prairie people in Laura Ingalls Wilder books called lunch “dinner.” “No, I’ll pack their lunch. Dinner. Sorry.”
“Right then. Be here at nine tomorrow.” And then, the drawn-out English goodbye to which I’d become somewhat accustomed: “Bye! Bye. Bye, bye. Bye bye (pause) bye.”
“Back to school” in England may not describe a weeks-long spending spree to fulfill the requirements of a teacher-issued supply list and a child-issued wardrobe list, but it does describe a massive descent upon uniform stores across the UK. At Stevenson’s, the scene was reminiscent of a Prada sample sale. Monochromatic, messy, lots of skinny people trying clothes on in the middle of the room – except these were kids. There were racks and racks of sweaters in red and blue and gray, rows of dark trousers and pleated skirts and polo shirts. Piles of half-folded sweatshirts and cardigans with arms akimbo dangled from shelving units.
The mess didn’t faze me: the administrator had said we needed a kit, and I envisioned a neat little box with all appropriate articles folded up inside and labeled for use. Our school must be really organized, I thought smugly.
I approached a staff member, a tall redhead in what looked like school uniform herself – gray slacks and a polo – and mustered up the vernacular as best I could. “We need uniform kits. For these two.” I reeled off the name of our primary school and the kids’ sizes. She nodded and led us up a flight of stairs to an even more chaotic floor of blazers, sweaters and trousers, and over to a forlorn-looking rack of some gray trousers and half-folded sweaters.
“We don’t have much left, I’m afraid,” she said, “but I can order whatever you need and you can get it in the next week or two.”
“Hang on,” I said. “The school lady said something about a kit. Aren’t we supposed to buy some kind of kit? In a box or something?”
The redhead looked perplexed. “This is all kit,” she said, and motioned in the general direction of the store.
My heart sank as I realized that in British English, “kit” is not defined as an actual pre-packed box of items, but rather as an all-encompassing, generalization kind of word, with roughly the same usage as the American English word “stuff.” Or, in British English, “bits.”
“So, it’s like, bits,” I said. “Uniform bits. Except it’s kit.”
“Pardon?” she said blankly.
“Ok,” I sighed. “Let’s see what we can find.”
Forty minutes later, we had uncovered one pair of too-small gray shorts for my son and one toddler-sized polo shirt so tight across his belly that the material turned shiny. My daughter fared better: we located one pleated gray kilt in her size. The only polo we could find for her was two sizes too big but she tucked it in to minimize the bagginess.
Once finished, I again flagged down our redheaded helper, who came toward us warily. “The lady said something about PE in a house,” I said. “They need special uniform bits for that?”
“Right, they need P/E kit.” She pursed her lips. “Do you know what house they’re in?”
“Ha,” I said. “Slytherin?”
She didn’t smile.
“Not yet,” I said weakly.
“OK,” she said. “Come back when you know what house. For now, follow me to that till. There’s less of a queue.”
Our back-to-school shopping in England had been a far cry from collecting color-coded binders, hand sanitizer and glue sticks at Staples, but we’d picked up some new slang and cleared the hurdle of preparing for a new school year in a new country. The next morning, fully dressed and pinned and tucked, they looked like legit English schoolchildren. There was no yellow bus – I walked them to school and, upon arrival at the crowded playground, felt the sickening lurch of New Kid stomach probably even more acutely than they did.
But they were going to back to school.
It really was the most wonderful time of the year.