The school supplies aisle looked like the aftermath of a hailstorm/blizzard/locust attack. File folders of every shade of the rainbow spilled our of their little bins, there were gaps where the Elmer's glue should be and pencils in disarray all forlorn and pouting.
For weeks, maybe a month or more, I have watched as notebook paper, pens and markers crept from the middle of the stores to the front ranks, as parents eyeballed the list in their hands, the one they printed off at home. Their children, depending on the age, looked on with excitement or with cool adolescent indifference.
But, even those jaded and world-weary adolescents managed to find their way into the car and in from the parking lot, to give the OK on every packet of paper, every piddling school supply being tossed into the cart. I hear them make suggestions as I pass, as they wonder aloud if they should bring Kleenex this year. Is it required like in elementary?
We were a last-minute kind of people in my family. We had calendars like everyone else, dentist appointments clearly noted, but we never shopped for school supplies early.
Perhaps it was just the times, but I would swear we didn't even get our school supply list until the day of registration, which, occurred, it seems, a couple of days before classes began. We went to school at an appointed time, checked out the classroom with our mothers, fidgeted while they received instruction, and left half an hour later with the all-important list.
Moms repeated this for as many kids as they had in school, and then, with the lists fluttering across the hot vinyl seats, we headed for the Ben Franklin.
Inside it was a little like the circus on opening day. So many people milling about and swarming around, kids from somewhere off, not the ones we recognized who left their bikes in a heap at the front door along with ours on slower, calmer days. The smell of peanuts and popcorn, although there was no smell of peanuts and popcorn, because it wasn't the circus at all but good old Ben Franklin, with a whiff of cedar seeping through the cellophane wrapping on the Ticonderogas.
At the front of the store, standing guard of what is hard to say, were stacks of loose-leaf notebook paper, three, four feet high. The slippery packets were placed in a diagonal fashion -- this way, that way -- like cocktail napkins, to keep them stable and to create some visual interest. The best smell, though, the very best smell, was the paraffin-y, papery, scent of Crayola crayons.
No other crayon would do. The Crayola was the first choice of Captain Kangaroo and every child who watched him. They smelled exactly like they tasted, exactly like they felt, all waxy and stuck in your teeth. Don't even act like you didn't try one.
Here is the deal with the Crayola. We all wanted the 64-count box, with the sharpener in the back. Almost no one got it. For those kids who showed up with one the first day of class, we were not impressed, not really. Oh, we wanted one for ourselves and we were envious, but we were also vaguely dismissive of the kid who had it, as if all their talent lay in those extra colors, not in their hands, their hearts. It was overkill and we knew it.
We knew it, even as we begged our mothers for them. Begged and begged until she relented and many let us get the to the 48 count box if we had any coloring talent at all. And we were happy with this box of crayons. This was the yeoman's box of crayons, a working artist's box of crayons, with all the major players but also raw and burnt sienna, mulberry, raw umber and periwinkle. And a copper crayon, which we hoarded and hid from the little kids.
There may be a good metaphor for school, for life in there somewhere. To dream of having the world even while knowing you can use only one crayon at a time. To pick first the color that brings you the most pleasure, letting someone else have a go with the red. How might your work look in colors no one else thought of using? What might you create? How might you begin, one Crayola at a time, to step out from the pack, to experiment and excel?
Greta McDonough is professor of human services at Owensboro Community & Technical College and author of the book, "Her Troublesome Boys: The Lucy Furman Story." Her column runs each Wednesday in Community. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.