Memories of Back-to-School Shopping

By Greg Schwem | September 8th, 2023

This annual joy can’t be found on a porch

Girl choosing back to school supplies. Greg Schwem pulls up memories of back-to-school shopping, the annual ritual of childhood and parenthood, and offers an admonition for parents.

Baby boomer Greg Schwem pulls up memories of back-to-school shopping, the annual ritual that takes place throughout the U.S. during late summer and early fall. His remembrance includes an admonition for today’s parents.

I recently found myself in an office supply store, an establishment that, sadly, I frequent less now that I can order everything from envelopes to an ergonomic desk chair with a simple click and have them delivered directly to my condo.

On this particular day, I was dropping off ancient computer peripherals to be recycled. Desperate for my money, and not my outdated USB cords, a store employee handed me a “10 dollars off of 30” coupon.

“It’s good today only,” he said.

Certainly I could find something for $30 within these aisles. A printer cartridge perhaps? Judging by their cost, I believe printer ink’s primary ingredient is crushed rubies. Heading to the printer supply aisle, I overheard arguing a few feet away. Not violent arguing, mind you; more arguing borne of confusion. That happens when the subject is back-to-school supplies.

The participants were a mom and her teenage son. She carried a paper list while he shuffled alongside clutching a shopping basket that would soon be full of necessities for whatever grade he would soon be entering. Judging by the peach fuzz over his lip and the occasional grumblings from between those lips, I guessed 10th.

The scene, comical as it was, made me yearn for the days when a paper list and a brick-and-mortar store visit was the only way to shop for school supplies. And despite disagreements over why a $3 pen performed better than a 50-cent pen (trust me, parents, expensive writing utensils don’t make your children any smarter), it was a joyful bonding moment.

Parents, if it’s not too late, ditch the temptation to order everything on Amazon and collect the boxes from your porch the day before the initial school bell rings. Take your offspring to the nearest Target or Walmart and spend an hour flummoxed over the requirements necessary to start first grade. Or fifth. Or 12th.

I remember when my girls began elementary school. At that time of their lives, the list consisted primarily of multi-colored writing instruments and enough Kleenex to wipe the nose of every resident in Wyoming.

“Is sneezing a subject now?” I asked my wife as we loaded three boxes into the cart. My daughters failed to comprehend the sarcasm, for they were busy poring over the crayons, the erasable markers and the colored pencils, ALL of which were on their lists. To me, it seemed like overkill. I mean, how many rainbows can a child draw in a single day? But I relented when I saw the smiles on my girls’ faces and the anticipation they felt knowing they would soon have a chance to uncap a soft green or baby pink marker and erase their creations if they so desired.

Middle school brought additional confusion, as I considered this to be their “notebook years.” Markers gave way to spiral notebooks and folders, in copious quantities. I remember inspecting a five-subject notebook, complete with pocket folders separating reams of paper.

“So this one notebook should be sufficient for all your classes?” I asked one daughter.

“Dad, I’m taking six classes,” she replied.


Years later, when we moved from our longtime home, I found enough unused notebooks and folders to launch a writing club.

High school shopping was the most confusing, and the most expensive, as then the supplies I purchased could have been the difference between a college acceptance letter and a politely worded rejection, neither of which were written in baby pink.

“What the heck is a graphing calculator?” I asked.

“I need it for calculus,” my daughter replied.

“What the heck is calculus?”

“You solve complex equations and calculations.”

“Why don’t you calculate how we are going to pay for this?”

Mind you, all of these conversations took place within the store’s aisles. Other parents were oblivious, however, as they were engaged in similar banter with their kids.

Despite my horror at the final totals, I look back at these yearly outings fondly. Parents, if you choose to go the Amazon route, I hope you will at least be present when your child opens the boxes and share in the joy that accompanies the first day of school.

Smiles cannot be taught.

Greg Schwem is a corporate stand-up comedian and author of two books: Text Me If You’re Breathing: Observations, Frustrations and Life Lessons From a Low-Tech Dad and the recently released The Road To Success Goes Through the Salad Bar: A Pile of BS From a Corporate Comedian, available at Visit Greg on the web at

© 2023 Greg Schwem. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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