Staples and the human condition (by Billy Coffey)

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

It’s often said people don’t miss what they don’t know, and that is a maxim proven true many times in my life. Like right now.

When I was a kid, back-to-school shopping involved little more than perusing the two aisles of office supplies at the local Roses, where the selection was limited and the quality was debatable. But now there’s Staples. If there had been a Staples when I was in school, I’m sure I would have roamed the aisles of notebooks and pencils with the same sense of wonder and excitement my children are displaying.

Shedding the outdoors for a classroom is now a call to arms. One look at the sheet of necessary supplies in my wife’s hand that came directly from the school officials confirms it. Pencils, notebook paper, backpack, glue, tape, composition book, erasers, and kid-friendly scissors are just a few of the necessary items. I feel like I’m sending my kids off to college rather than second grade and kindergarten.

Although I am at times not so patient a father, on this day and in this store understanding comes easy. My kids are regarding our trip here with the perfect blend of excitement and seriousness. A tiny seed of knowledge is being planted within them that somehow this supply shopping is no errand. In a few years it will sprout and grow into the knowledge that what they are doing is the physical manifestation of a spiritual truth. They will see this a holy rite, and a universal one at that.

Because if my children are anything like me, all this shopping and ogling over school supplies and all this excitement over starting a new year will likely one day be replaced by a determination not to screw things up yet again.

I was never a standout in school. Nowhere near honor-role caliber. Average at best. I suppose I had the smarts to do better and be more, but not the drive or discipline. What people thought of me and how I fit in mattered much more than learning the Pythagorean theorem or how photosynthesis worked. Then, and sometimes now, the things that really shouldn’t matter at all mattered very much.

For me, the best days of the school year were the first few and the last few. The first few because they always held the most promise. The last few because by then I had firmly entrenched myself in my yearly rut of getting by rather than pulling ahead, and just wanted everything over with.

But summer vacation is the Great Eraser, three months of sunshine and play that put enough distance between me and the previous nine months to suggest the next year might be mine to own. Back-to-school shopping would always cement that thought. All those fresh notebooks with empty pages waiting to be filled with knowledge? Pencils sharp and wood-scented, ready to chew on in deep thought? And of course there was the epitome of student organization, the Trapper Keeper. Those were the weapons I would wield in the battle against myself.

And it always worked for the first few weeks, after which those notebooks would be filled with doodles born of boredom and angst, the pencils would be thrown at either a classmate or the ceiling, and my Trapper Keeper would have been torn to shreds and abandoned in the bottom of my locker.

We have good intentions, don’t we? Every notion to make the next day our best, to rise above petty thoughts and empty words and become who we know we can be. And still every night we close our eyes with the nagging thoughts of who we let down and what we couldn’t measure up to.

Just as we can’t be the perfect student, we’ll never be the perfect people. Deep down we all know this. But we also know that just because our feet are stuck in the mud of this world doesn’t mean our hands can’t reach ever higher toward the sky. Just because we cannot fly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand tall.

That’s what I want my children to know as they walk these aisles.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at his blog What I Learned Today and follow him on twitter at @BillyCoffey

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