What Back to School Shopping Is Really Like

I’m getting a little tired of these snappy back-to-school commercials with smiling parents and kids in jazzy kicks jammin’ to some catchy tune. Everything is colorful and organized and—it makes me vomit a bit in my mouth to say it—FUN. Lemme tell you what the exact opposite of fun is: back to school shopping.


Joyous? OBVIOUSLY. This means that the two-and-a-half-month-long stretch of sticky, sweaty “I’m boreds” is almost over, and you’re all about to get back on a routine that includes dusting off the stagnant lumpy coil inside your kids’ skulls and reminding them that “fam” is not a real word.

But the schlep to get it all done makes one wish for year-round school so it wouldn’t be such a big event, a high-expectation thing that is both special and utterly exhausting—not to mention expensive. Here’s a breakdown of how it usually goes:

Before your kids are done with their second week of summer camp, every store in the country has that new backpack smell. Aisles are teeming with sharpened number two pencils and glue sticks as fat as cans of cheap ground coffee. Why is this annoying? Because absofreaking everything is freshly in stock and unmarred by damp youthful hands, but your kids’ schools haven’t posted the supply lists yet. NOPE. Keep huffing those tidy stacks of pencil boxes as you pass them by, for they will topple down to extinction before your district sends an email blast midsummer letting you know the lists are (finally!) live for the printing.

Too bad you don’t have printer ink left! So you snap screen shots and drag your progeny kicking and screaming [see also: bribes] to the store because how many kids want to think about anything school adjacent while in the throes of shoeless summertime glory? ZERO. Unless they are little kids who are just now starting big kid school, but those adorable wee tots don’t count because their sh*tstorm simply begins a little later (so stay tuned!).

Once at the store, you divide and conquer: each kid creating a separate stack in the cart of their required school supplies, from erasable colored pencils to calculators that cost more than your first apartment. I hope luck is on your side when it comes to the dreaded marbled composition book, my friends, because every school and every grade has rules about which ones to get that cannot be broken NO MATTER WHAT. This year your kids need a kaleidescope of colors in either college or wide for each subject and if you get the combination wrong you have wrecked their year before it even began. Unfortunately, there will be a rush on green college ruled marbled composition books this year, necessitating trips to at least three more shops and desperate texts to fellow parents with kids in your grade who are also on the hunt before your errand is complete.

Oh, are you one of the nice parents who lets their kids pick out binders (two 1.5-inch, not one 3-inch, DUH) and pocket folders (with holes, not prongs CAN’T YOU READ?) in styles or colors they prefer, when the teachers allow them the flexibility? Well, lah-di-frickin’-dah to you, ma’am. Enjoy your new home in aisle twenty-two! No elementary schooler has ever been able to take less than a fortnight to decide between one with cute kittens on it and one with rainbow tacos on it. It’s a fact. And try telling your newly minted first-grader that she can’t have the totally loveable plush backpack with coordinating lunchbox that’s ten times the price of any other option in that store. She will use her puppydog eyes and tantrum stomps and the whole, “But it’s my first evah big girl backpack, Mama” sweetness to get her way. Enjoy eating ramen for the rest of the month!

Once the cart is full of actual learning supplies, you’ll turn to tell the kids its time to go and realize holy crap they all grew three inches taller this summer. Time to get some new duds! Your little kids might be fine with the offerings in the clothing section of the department store you got your paper goods in, but if you have any kids within a stone’s throw of puberty? You’ll want to pound a couple energy drinks and a protein bar before asking them to peruse those racks, too, so you can be ready to bat away countless accusations of how you must want to ruin their lives by dressing them like uncool babies. LIFE. RUINER. Your options are to clench your teeth and have a public standoff with your tweens/teenagers while negating all the slanderous things they say about that store’s fashion options to your younger kids, who are now wondering whether they, too, should join the revolt as light pop hits from the ’90s play overhead, or send them to sulk elsewhere while you quickly grab whatever the cooperative spawn will wear and hightail it outta there, ordering the older kids’ new clothes online from the comfort of home later that night from a variety of crabby teen-approved websites (with a glass of much-deserved wine in hand to soften the blow of THAT price tag).

I’m not even gonna get into the project that is searching the house for so much as a single fully-functioning reusable water bottle from the dozens you’ve procured over the years in order to hydrate your kids at school in an eco-conscious manner. [MAKES BUZZER SOUND] LOL—nice try!

So. Yeah. Unless TV commercials for back-to-school shopping start portraying the experience in a more realistic way any of us can relate to, I’m just going to keep rolling my eyes while fast-forwarding through that malarkey. Because we know what it’s really like.