Jerry Nelson: Back to school season

Farm Forum

It’s that time of the year when we have sweet corn coming out of our ears (har!) which must mean that it’s also the “back to school” season.

Is it just me or are summers getting shorter? It seems like it was only a few days ago that department stores were advertising their “school’s out!” sales. These were followed shortly by their “pre-pre-pre-Christmas bargain blowout bonanza!”

Not to sound like an old fogy or anything, but summertime sabbaticals from school were definitely much longer when I was a kid. They included ample time for me to totally forget everything I had learned during the previous school year.

It was a huge deal at our house when the “back to school” season arrived. This was not because any of us kids particularly looked forward to resuming classes; it was mostly due to the fact that there were eight kids in our family. Imagine the logistical headaches involved with buying new duds for the entire Prussian army.

Shoes, for some reason, were a highly fussed-over item. I could never see why. Like most farm boys, I saw shoes as merely something that I was forced to wear to prevent premature sock deterioration or for smashing the occasional spider that scooted across the living room floor.

My shoes were also a repository for epic levels of stink — at least according to the rest of my family.

Calls of “Eww! Who brought in a dead skunk?” would echo throughout our farmhouse shortly after I removed my crusty clodhoppers at the end of a hot summer’s day. I could never understand what they were talking about. My olfactory senses didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary.

When summer began to draw to a close, each kid was taken in to a local department store for a new set of clothes. Much was usually made over the amount the child had grown over the summer months. Hey, it wasn’t as if I had chosen to grow! It was something that was beyond my control, much like foot odor.

It’s hard to imagine this nowadays, but there were once actual shoe salesmen, guys who would actually measure your foot with a semi-scary, somewhat Medieval-looking doodad. He would then disappear into the storeroom and reappear moments later with the proper size of footwear. Shoe salesmen always donned a gas mask whenever they measured my feet. They were such a bunch of kidders!

There was none of this foraging around in a wilderness of shoes, trying on clogs that have been tried on Lord knows how many feet. And Lord knows how many of them had been sockless! Eww!

After buying new clothes came the procurement of the requisite school supplies, which included such things as five-pound jars of paste. I always secretly envied the kids who came from wealthy families that could afford the delicious mint-flavored kind.

Colored pencils were also required, although I could never figure out why. At the end of the school year, my colored pencils would still be sporting their pristine factory points. I must have had a colorless childhood.

Other essential items included a compass and a protractor. We were taught how to use these simple tools to scribe precise circles and precisely measure angles. These are skills I have yet to use in the real world. But that’s my own fault; I should have followed my boyhood dream of becoming the navigator on a pirate man-o’-war.

It seems like kids these days can’t go to school unless they have enough office supplies to operate the Pentagon. This overabundance of supplies gave rise to the ubiquitous backpack, which generally contains so much junk that it weighs more than the child who is supposed to carry it.

Nobody had backpacks when I was a kid. The rule was, if your stuff didn’t fit into a standard sized grocery store paper bag you probably didn’t need it. And if the bag broke, you probably had too much stuff.

One fall when our boys began school, we were informed that the oldest needed a so-called “scientific” calculator. My wife dutifully purchased the thing, which set us back nearly as much as a car payment.

I took the device out of its box to examine it. The gizmo had more buttons than the cockpit of the space shuttle! I doubted that even a scientist would be able to figure out how to operate this “scientific” calculator.

But the kid needed the thing and obviously made use of it. Because he later showed me how he could triangulate my foot size without taking off my shoes.

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