Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In the Baltimore area, many children went back to school this week. When I was a lad, school began after Labor Day, which seems a more appropriate starting point since many see Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer. It’s also in September, the first month of fall. Starting in August is psychological cruelty, as far as I’m concerned, but I guess the local governments believe they can prove their commitment to education by making the school year a week longer. Anyway, I’m in no position to debate the state of public education. What I can do is babble on about what “back to school” meant to me.

The first week of school was a period of trade-offs. On the plus side, you had some spiffy new clothes to wear, a shiny new lunch box featuring the latest, most popular toy or TV show, and the prospect of a school year that just might not suck as badly as the previous year. On the downside, you had to get up early, start using your brain for something other than imagining, and jockey through the childhood power struggle as each kid tried to assert his or her dominance in the bloodsport of playground pecking order.

And let’s not forget the new teachers. We were usually told who our teacher would be on the last day of the previous school year. If you got one who had a bad reputation, you had the entire summer to fret over the misery that awaited you. Your only hope was to pray that this scourge of academia would be transferred, get pregnant and quit, or be hit by a bus. An unknown replacement had to be better than the known terror. Upon reflection, the teachers I feared the most turned out to be some of the best, and the ones I did not dread usually turned out to be the worst. So much for relying on gossip.

Even if you were fortunate enough to get in with a class of kids that you got along with and the teacher turned out to be pretty cool, going back to school was always just a bit sad. Your nine-month sentence had just begun. At age six or seven or eight, nine months was a lifetime, and they would prove to be quite active months. Who was ever the same person in June as one was the previous September? Changes are daily at that age, and life moves very slowly.

During those first few days, as I sat in that non-air conditioned classroom, smelling the formaldehyde on my newly purchased school clothes mix with my nervous perspiration, all I could dream of was Friday. The first Friday after Labor Day - the first Friday of the school year - provided the magical rewards that made the entire week of stress and suffering worthwhile. The first of those magical rewards awaited me as I dashed home from school. Sitting on the front steps, in all their red and green glory, were the Wards and Sears Christmas catalogs. In those days long before the World Wide Web, catalogs were your only home connection with the wonderful universe of toys yet purchased. I would scoop those welcome parcels up and spread them out on the living room floor, perusing them with intense scrutiny. Despite their enormous density, my interest lay with those handful of pages buried in the center of the book: boy’s toys. Ah, G.I. Joe, Action Jackson, Johnny West. Ooooh, Ward’s has an exclusive figure called Hombre! Gotta write that down.

The “Wish Books” were a wonderful escape where you could see every toy you ever coveted laid out all in one place. And for one time of the year, you could dream that you owned all of them. I knew, for example, that I could never ask for one of those motorized cars that you could actually climb into and drive around in. Those were way too expensive, and our tiny backyard hardly afforded much room for cruising, but with the catalog, I could stare and dream. December 25th seemed like a lifetime away.

An afternoon of catalog browsing nearly pushed away all memories of the hideous week at school, but the best memory blocker came in prime time. That’s when the three major networks (as opposed to the five or six medium-sized networks we have today) would present their sneak previews of the Saturday morning lineups. Usually hosted by the stars of their live action kid shows, these previews would introduce you to the new schedule of cartoons and live action shows aimed specifically at me. (Apparently, these specials continued into the 80s, but I was oblivious by then.)

Children today, who are used to having their pick of kid-oriented cable channels spewing out specialized entertainment 24/7, can’t imagine how major these little half-hour preview shows were. Saturday mornings offered the only period of new programming aimed at children, so we needed to study these Friday night specials to figure out exactly which shows we had to watch and which shows we could skip. On NBC, when Johnny Whitaker discussed with Jimmy Osmond the virtues of tuning into Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, I took heed. Of course, when he also told me to stay tuned for Land of the Lost, I was torn because the preview on CBS already told me to watch The Shazam/Isis Hour. I could lose sleep over these decisions.

I remember in 1973, after seeing the sneak peek at Super Friends, I had a dream that I was watching the show. I envisioned the show looking like the Justice League of America comics that I had been reading. Then the next morning, I was hopelessly deflated as I saw those uber-dorks Wendy and Marvin, along with that dumbass dog, following the World’s Greatest Superheroes around and generally goofing things up. All I could think was, “Hanna-Barbera screws up another one. Why couldn’t Filmations have done this?”

After watching the new cartoon shows on Saturday morning, it was outside to play and discuss with my friends the new toys in the Christmas catalogs. Usually, the Saturday morning shows had been amply sprinkled with commercials featuring these new toys, so we now had additional fuel to fire our avarice. Of course, the first week of school was a long lost memory and the equilibrium set in. By Monday morning, we were back into the swing of things. The air cooled, the leaves changed color, and we started dreaming about our Halloween costumes.

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