My heart sank as I watched the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon on TV.
“You’ll never walk alone,” Lewis sang, chin and lips quivering, fighting tears. It was a sad moment. For me, it was sadder because it was a sure sign that summer was over and we were headed back to school tomorrow.
It was an era when summer vacation started Memorial Day weekend. We went back to school on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Like the era, our calendar was plain, simple and consistent. You didn’t need a calendar, really.
When I saw Jerry Lewis sing on TV, I knew it was back to school and the end of three months of endless freedom and fun.
Time to cover my textbooks with brown paper bags from Kroger or Tri-City grocery stores. Wash behind my ears. Clean my fingernails. Find an old “Archie” comic book from Yociss Pharmacy to be sure I could still read in class aloud, if asked.
On Labor Day weekend, we went to Sears & Roebuck on Tenth and State Streets in East St. Louis and bought a few pairs of solid blue or brown pants and white or yellow shirts, or whatever school uniform colors were that school year.
We bought a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse tennis shoes at Kinney’s. White low tops. So plain, white, boring and slow by today’s standards.
Got a haircut at Art’s Barber Shop on 74th and State Street. “Style it,” I’d say to Art the barber. I’m sure Art was laughing behind the chair at my curly mop of red hair which he last cut when summer vacation started on Memorial Day weekend. Art was a small, bald man about the size of a big first-grader. He made me nervous with that big razor in his hand to shave my neck.
Style it? Art cut my hair the same way every time with very little style to it. I looked like a show poodle. Bald on the back and sides and a curly red mop on top.
In a few days, we were back to school.
Ready or not?
I was never ready.
Nobody has asked for my advice, so I imagined a “Back to School!” questionnaire arrived. The imaginary, 10-question survey sought advice from former students on how to prepare for the first few days and weeks of school.
Q: What is your advice for a smooth first day and weeks of school?
A: Before choosing a desk, check under the table top for souvenirs from last spring. Gum. Spit wads. Carvings.
Don’t bring a gift to your new teacher the first few weeks. Classmates will make fun of you. Save the sucking up until around Thanksgiving when you’ll really need it.
Q: What is your advice for good study habits?
A: Study early. And don’t listen to music through your headphones while studying. I always said music helped me focus. Wrong. There’s a reason I know all the lyrics to every song on Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album but never quite grasped math or science.
Q: Did you like school uniforms or feel it oppressed your freedom of expression?
A: I’m a fan of school uniforms. A school uniform was one less decision to make every morning. I wish we had uniforms in everyday adult life. Khaki pants. Golf shirts. Boat shoes.
Q: What kind of lunchbox did you have as a kid?
A: I was tough on lunch boxes so I had quite a few. My favorites were a “Munsters” and a “Green Hornet.” I was not into super heroes. My mom thought I’d like it because it was “green” and I was Irish. My all-time favorite was a baseball lunch box that had photos of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente on it. Lost that one, too.
Q: Did you take your lunch or buy school lunch as a kid?
A: A little of both. My mom put a stop to it when she found out I was eating my packed lunch and also buying a school lunch. Still have that problem today when I bring my lunch to work. I’ve eaten it by 9 a.m. and out to lunch by noon.
Q: Any advice on homework?
A: Do it. And don’t wait until the last minute.
Q: Any advice for students and cell phones?
A: Don’t forget how to talk to others. Look them in the eyes. Real words. Nod. Smile. Saw a funny quote the other day: “Having people over to my house later to sit around and stare at our phones. Come by if you want.” Don’t become a phone starer.
Q: What were the characteristics of your favorite teachers?
A: They had fun. Smiled a lot. They laughed along with us. They had high standards, though, and taught us toughly. They understood that not every boy learned exactly the same way, at the same time, from the same lessons. No labels or stereotypes.
Q: Any advice to a young student who likes to write?
A: Keep writing. No matter what you choose to do in life, you’ll write. And keep reading. The best way to be a good writer is to read good writing.
Q: Any regrets in school?
A: I should have listened more and laughed less. Or maybe I should have laughed more and listened less. Depends on the subject.