September 2, 2008

Saved By the Bell

By Rebecca Lavoie

Like a stranded shipwreck survivor on a desert island, I watch the school bus lumber down my street like a Coast Guard cutter finally arriving to rescue me after months of hopeful waiting. Instead of a bonfire to flag it down, I've planted my second grader in the driveway. Today he's wearing a clean polo shirt and a sweater vest he will most certainly eschew in favor of his stained Indiana Jones and Star Wars tees as soon as his mother realizes that, yes, rescue has come, and life is normal again.

I love the summer, but I love the school year more. This might not make me popular with school-aged readers, but like a lot of parents, I enjoy the hours of the day I know my kids are in the safe hands of their teachers, living by a rigorous schedule and, most important, getting in trouble with someone else for a change.

What I don't love is what comes before, that feeling of dread inspired by back-to-school marketing campaigns that make me feel totally unprepared for the main event. Sears and Old Navy might not realize this, but they are only the first reminder among many that it's time to transition to earlier bedtimes, the first of a season of bombardment that makes this first day of school feel like a long time coming.

In Hopkinton, the days leading up to the start of school are a whirlwind of communication designed to make life easier for the harried parent who's suddenly faced the fact that last year's pants no longer fit and that smell on her porch isn't a dead mouse under the floorboards, but a long forgotten half-sandwich from the last day of school buried in her kindergartner's old backpack.

We parents get letters and e-mails galore from the district and PTA, most of which are pretty helpful. Some educate us on the reasoning behind the confounding two-day first-week schedule. Some give us guidance on navigating the maze of cones set up to avoid a demolition derby in the elementary school parking lot. (Apparently, I'm not supposed to strike the first-graders walking in the crosswalk as I drive through. Who knew?)

This year, one set of correspondence was a little unsettling. Apparently, many Hopkinton parents are up in arms about some recent cases of head lice, but given the tone of the e-mails I've received, it sounds more like we're preparing for an outbreak of Ebola.

Lice is certainly something to avoid but is far from my biggest concern as we forge into yet another academic year. I'm more worried about the dirty words my kids learned at camp this summer, and whether I've thoroughly convinced my angels that profanity is a poor way to make a good impression on their new teachers. Lice, after all, can be combed out after a vigorous application of toxic shampoo. The f-bomb? It's a little harder to eradicate from the head of a 7-year-old.

Another end-of-summer trial is the return of my school-year lord and master, the hot lunch calendar. This Sudoku grid of culinary delights like "tuna roll" and "pizza bagel" determines the balance of power in our house, because as any parent of boys will attest, food is king. My older son spent last night's pre-bedtime hour magic- markering September dates with H's, C's and A's, denoting the days he wants hot, cold, or the mystical alternative lunch. (Alternative is provided for kids who believe a "Chickenburger" ranks a notch above mom's salami sandwich and allows them to avoid the dreaded "baked rotini with vegetable" altogether.)

This would seem like a great way to give a child some ownership of the school experience. But I've learned that if you give a kid a marker, he can make your life hell, especially when it comes to filling out that tiny envelope every Monday morning only to hear on Thursday that the "baked rotini" is your son's best friend's favorite, so why couldn't he get it too? Argh!

Ruined backpacks and fear of public f-bombs fade as the yellow bus pulls up to my driveway and picks up my son, signaling the end of a great summer and the beginning of an even greater part of the year. Somehow, we've made it through the hard part, buying new backpacks and just enough clean shirts to get my boys through those first days when clean shirts seem to be a requirement. I didn't hit anyone in the parking lot at kindergarten drop-off, and as far as I know, today's "alternative" lunch of a "hamburger" is, in fact, a little better than salami and a lot better than the district's offering of "hot dog with pudding."

After months of hopeful waiting, rescue has finally arrived and gone as the bus pulls away. It's time to relax, as I can get back to the gym and write in relative peace and quiet, knowing that just a couple of miles away my kids are safe, their day is structured and, hopefully, f-bomb-free. This is the time we parents get our lives back in a way, at least for the school day hours.

Feeling like a celebration, I head to my local market to buy ingredients for a grown-up lunch and a bottle of wine for after tonight's early bedtime, when I can finally reclaim my television after a long summer of family-friendly viewing. Pausing at the checkout as I look at the remnants of the store's back-to-school displays, I reach out and add one more item to my pile. The bus will be back in just a few hours. I suppose it can't hurt to have one little bottle of toxic shampoo on hand.

Originally published by Rebecca Lavoie Monitor columnist.

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