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I am thankful for laughter,
except when milk comes out
of my nose. ~Woody Allen

The School of Hard Knocks
by Julie Beun-Chown

Call me crazy, but last year, I left back-to-school shopping until the very end of the summer. You could also call me a slacker, because unlike Halloween decorations that adorn stores in the summer, I have a habit of not showing up with my credit card until I'm fantasizing about my kids disappearing into the Big Yellow School Bus of my sanity. That usually happens mid-August.

So there I was, tanned and relaxed, with a two-page list of back-to-school essentials. It seemed I needed everything, twice over: pencils, colouring markers and crayons, lined paper – and three erasers. (Erasers only come in even numbers. I mused if this was an example of teacher humour. Subtle and subversive. Nice.)

I also needed glue sticks, unlined notebooks, pencil sharpeners, pencil cases, a water bottle, a recorder, a combination lock and "inside" shoes. And yes, duotangs in seven specific colours – one for each subject. Shelf-stockers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after hordes of parents had laid waste to their ordered kingdom weeks earlier were apparently still in therapy at Store No. 1, because the shelves there were as bare as Cindy-Lou Who's living room on Christmas Day.

Undeterred, I hit Store No. 2. It looked like the aftermath of a car bomb. A lone employee was morosely tidying up. I found two glue sticks under a pile of Strawberry Shortcake binders and lined paper. I looked around in panic. Where were the crayons, the pencil cases? The place had been cleaned out. What would other, non-slacker mothers say if I sent my kids to school with fewer than three duotangs – and all in the same colour?

Then I saw it, the Holy Grail of colour-coded subjects: the hard-to-locate, near-mythical purple duotang. I walked toward it…and that's when I saw her. She had 30 pounds on me, and the flared nostrils of a mom on the edge. It doesn't sound like much of a grudge match, but utter the words "back to school" coupled with "purple duotang," and you will sense a collective shudder of existential angst in mothers everywhere.

Angry Mum and I didn't look at each other directly, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw her inch toward the elusive item. My heart raced. If you listened closely, you could hear the sound of my composure cracking.

My mind darted back to a few days earlier, when I'd called Mum. "What did I need when I started school?"

"Well, you had to bring a box of tissues." Long pause. "Oh, and a blanket, inside shoes and a snack."

That's it? My kids go to school hunched over, carrying two plastic shopping bags and backpacks jammed so tight the zippers threaten to explode.

Back in the store aisle, I sized up Angry Mum and the purple duotang. She was closer, but I was faster. How desperate was I, really?

In the end, I shrugged and walked away. She could have the damn thing.

After all, it's the content of a child's life, not the packaging, that counts. I went home, found a purple marker and got creative.

But I also learned my lesson: back-to-school really starts in June.

First appeared in Canadian Living,

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