I have a lot of friends who are teachers. And this is the time of the year when I’ll text them from my desk, while typing away at community items for the paper, and the response I get back from them is often something like “Guhhhhggg” or “Muhhhhhh.” Meaning it’s time for both them, as well as their students, to go…you got it…Back to School. Three words that fill me with dread even now, as I’m sure they do for some kid you know in your life who is currently moping around the house like the world is ending.
And while the world isn’t ending, the summer certainly is. I remember it all too well. You step off that school bus sometime in late May thinking that three months of no school will go on forever and then sometime in late July you start seeing those nagging three words appear on TV and in these included Journal Gazette photos from 1989 and 1992 respectively, and then before you know it you’re being forced by your parents to go to Payless Shoe store to make sure you have proper footwear for something you’ve never experienced before called “P.E.” And because your parents are actually, you know, responsible people with jobs, the only times you’re going to get to experience this is either Friday evening, or Saturday afternoon, both peak times to be spotted at the mall with your parents trying on shoes or husky pants while the cute redhead from the class just ahead of you struts on by with her friends and you try your best not to die on the spot right there in your stiff, crispy, off the rack Bugle Boys.
Ok, I’m being a little dramatic here, but such drama is the very heart of what it was to be that age this time of year. C’mon, tell me you don’t remember how it felt once you were on the downside of July and staring straight into the greedy maw of August as it began to close in around your precious summer vacation. Ahem. More dramatics. Sorry. Clearly I still feel it.
Actually school wasn’t all that bad a thing, growing up. Humboldt Elementary School (RIP) was a pretty rad place to spend your early educational years. It was the same bunch of cutups year in and year out, minus a few whose parents would move in and then move away before we really got to know them. I still remember the one kid in my fourth-grade class who never could master those tricky cursive loops and who told me on his last day that I could have his G.I Joe guys. Class act, dude.
And by the time you reach, what, sophomore year in high school, that sharp, acrid sting of having to go back to school has diminished for the most part. Sure you don’t want to go back, but the freedom of a driver’s license is on the horizon. And by your junior year, yeah the stress of trying to bump that trigonometry grade up is still omnipresent, and yes, you’ve probably filled at least two old-school composition books with some of the worst poetry around drawn from thick swirling miasma of deep-teenage feelings kept roiling in your gut by late night runs to Taco Bell, but by that point school has become your “job” and you’ve picked the co-workers you enjoy spending time with…which, in this area, involves, again, getting Taco Bell and driving endlessly around the lake until you decide whose house you’re going to hang out at.
But it’s that “middle” phase of school, from around sixth grade to freshmen year of high school, that really tends to grind on forever, day in day out, when each morning getting up at 6:30 a.m. to catch the bus (I lived at the start of a very long rural bus route) was agony, standing there in your bedroom with the lights off (so you could convince yourself you weren’t awake yet) and trying to put your aforementioned Bugle Boys on so that you could sit there on a rattletrap Blue Bird commute to school on a route that takes you around some of the more desolate rural nooks and crannies north of Mattoon while you stare out the window at the dusty cornfields listening to a mix tape on your Walkman. Ahem, who’s being dramatic now?
But just why is it that way? Look, I’m no sociologist, just a doughy guy from Coles County who tries to keep track of things, and best that I can figure out is that grade school is still kind of kids’ stuff, fun science experiments, recess with monkey bars, and time spent trading Garbage Pail Kids cards on the playground. But yeah, right around sixth grade you start to just become so painfully “aware” of things…aware of how you haven’t quite found your “real” friends yet, aware of how suddenly your classes aren’t just cakewalks anymore; aware of just how uncomfortable you feel in your own poorly fitting, out of style clothes; and just plain aware of what an unmitigated drag the whole adolescence thing is in general, let alone adolescence crammed into one spot from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. five days a week, nine months out of the year.
But then, as I’m realizing I just wrote myself into an old-fashioned funk with all this back to school junk, I took a closer look at those photos and noticed that everyone’s smiling. Sherri Yunker sure looks ready to get her classroom in order for all those kindergartners, and those kids bopping down the sidewalk in their newly bought duds couldn’t be happier to show them off to their friends. Maybe that’s something to keep in mind. Oh sure, I doubt I could find a photo of a gloomy 12-year-old on their way to the first day back at school with that same look of joy on their face, but hey, I do remember, even at that age, of being real proud of some of my Pink Floyd T-shirts, and hey, they sure helped me blend in with the other “cool” guys in auto shop. So yeah, what am I being so dramatic about anyway? Welcome back, kids!
"The Throwback Machine" is a weekly feature taking a look back at items of interest found in the JG-TC online archives. For questions, suggestions, or his "Song of the Day" recommendation, contact him at email@example.com.