Back to School: The Thrill Is Gone

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BELTMAN/CORBIS

Well, it's that time of year again: Time to pack away swimsuits, hang up sun hats and haul out the 940-page fall fashion issue of Vogue. Labor Day has come and gone, which means that summer is over, fall is imminent, and — let's try keeping that cheering to a reasonable decibel level, Mom and Dad — school is back in session.

I always loved going back to school; for the first couple of days, at least, the whole new school year experience was exceedingly pleasant. My parents would take me to get new school supplies, and my clever and often ear-splitting negotiating tactics meant that I had a good shot at returning home with a new, utterly useless prize, like a special bendable pencil or a cherry-scented pen. On the eve of the new school year, I would organize my new loot carefully, caressing the shiny loose-leaf folders, sharpening the pencils, testing out the pink erasers. I'd set out my clothing for the next morning; as I got older, this ritual often involved lengthy consultations with friends, whose advice was weighed carefully and then generally dismissed. (We all had terrible taste back then, but I like to blame our sartorial ignorance on the trends of the day. Whose bright idea was it to invent asymmetrical haircuts, anyway?)

Aside from two notable exceptions (first grade, when I cried and cried and would not get on the school bus, and ninth grade, when my lips and eyelids swelled up like little balloons in a violent allergic reaction to some still unnamed flower), I viewed the first day of school as something of a gift. Here I was, heading back to the trenches, with a new haircut (generally middling to bad), a faint tan (left over from summer camp) and a great pair of corduroys (it is just me, or was fall much less humid back in the Ď70s?). I would head off to the bus stop with my neighbors, or start the one-mile trek to my high school with an unmistakable spring in my step. A clean slate! A brand new year, ripe with new opportunities to learn, new educational vistas to scale, and, please God, new boys!

By the end of that first week, of course, the thrill had pretty much dissipated, and I was complaining about homework, or my homeroom teacher, or swimming class. For the most part, I enjoyed school over the years, but every year I hoped (to no avail) that I'd be able to hold on to that initial frisson of excitement that saturated every first day.

Now, grown up and on my own, I watch the kids on my Manhattan street trot off to their first days of school, clad in their still-flawless little khakis and colorful shirts. I gaze longingly at their brand-new Elmo backpacks, until their parents catch me staring and shoot me a dirty look, hooking a protective arm around their offspring and hurrying them along a bit faster.

I still try to capture that back-to-school feeling, in my own, semi-adult way. And this year is no different: I'll hit the sales, buy some cords. Maybe I'll even find a few new pencils. But even with the new duds and the virgin writing utensils, heading back into my office won't'elicit even a trace of that childhood thrill. Iíll just walk in to work as usual, glance around at the general office pallor, wash the subway grime off my hands, and settle in at my overly familiar desk. And worst of all, no one will express any particular interest in what I did over my summer vacation.