In a Staples commercial, that time isn't Christmas. In fact, Christmas seems to be a bit of a dirty word these days, even though most people I know celebrate Christmas and not primarily in a religious way, either! No, it refers to back-to-school.

Actually, autumn, back-to-school time and Thanksgiving have long been my favourite time of year. They feel like a time of renewal, even though the leaves are getting ready to fall off the trees, the geese and other migratory birds are flying south, and nature is hibernating and going dormant.

Is it a good time for most families? The implication of the commercial seems to be that the adults are tired of having their kids around, that there's been just a bit too much family togetherness for their liking.

Staples is not the only organization making the link between Christmas and back-to-school. Ottawa's Christmas Exchange has rebranded itself as the "Caring and Sharing Exchange" and started providing school supplies to low-income families. Because for most families, if fall is the most wonderful time of the year, it's also the most expensive time.

I've donated to the Christmas Exchange for a number of years now, following a family tradition. I recall as a kid, my mother would pick up a few extra packages of nylon stockings - a luxury in those days - to donate. The charity has always been non-denominational although I think at one time, they had a policy of dispensing their largesse only to the "working poor", not those on welfare - this notion of "deserving" versus "undeserving" poverty and helping those who help themselves. Or maybe I've got that wrong and the philosophy behind the policy was that the state was already looking after those on public assistance, whereas the working poor tended to get lost in the shuffle.

Although I'm still sending them annual donations, I have to say that I'm seriously conflicted about their expanded role. While it's undeniable that back-to-school can be a heavy financial burden for many families, I firmly believe that most school supplies should be provided by the schools themselves, at least for the elementary and perhaps intermediate grades. After all, half of our property taxes in this province are earmarked to support public education - and I've always considered that to be a valid price to pay to support a public good like that.

When I was at school, notebooks and pencils and paper and textbooks were all provided to us up to grade eight. They even provided ink and pens too, if you didn't mind scratching away with a straight pen - the type with cod-liver-oil on the nib that you had to lick off before the nib would work properly. In grade eight, we actually had a somewhat eccentric home-room teacher who demanded that we use these nefarious pens until our handwriting was good enough that we could "graduate" to a fountain or cartridge pen. Ballpoint pens were strictly taboo, though - perhaps not surprising since in those days, they were very messy and blotchy and leaky things. Anyway, I'm not sure what the rationale was for thinking we'd have neater penmanship wielding a straight pen than if we were allowed to use the more user-friendly fountain or cartridge pens. Whatever the case, I seem to recall he told us some time between Christmas and Easter that we could all start using fountain pens, since if we hadn't perfected our straight-penmanship by now, there was no hope for us!

Nowadays, of course, kids hunch over keyboards and no one worries about their handwriting any more. As for adults, we have fewer and fewer occasions to sign our names and more and more PINs to forget!

But I digress. By the time I reached high school, we had to provide all of our school supplies except the textbooks - but there WERE school fees to cover at least a portion of the textbook cost. And if we lost any of them, we had to replace them at our own (or really, our parents') expense. Only in grade 13 did we have to buy all our own texts (this, I believe, was a change from when my siblings had been in high school a few years earlier, and textbooks were the family's responsibility right from grade nine onwards).

If we went back to having school supplies provided in elementary school, this would make for better standardization - the kids would have the supplies that the teachers wanted them to - and the school board could take advantage of bulk purchasing and economies of scale. And there would be far less stigma and embarrassment for the children of low-income families.

But, you might protest, we don't have unlimited funds here. Well, no. So I'll briefly outline a few of my ideas as to how the school system could save money.

First of all, it's tremendously wasteful that we have TWO school systems in Ontario - one for the "public" schools and one for the Roman Catholics. But I realize that can't be changed overnight, so I'll leave it aside for now.

Secondly, what's with all the bussing? On the one hand, we lament the growing obesity rate of today's children but on the other, we bus children far from their neighbourhoods and supply the transportation at public expense. I couldn't believe it when I read that the public school board was thinking of providing those yellow buses even to high school students - as the Catholic schools apparently already do. Couldn't we reframe how we think about this, and consider it a basic right of most elementary school-age kids to live within walking distance of their schools, and high school students perhaps at a farther distance, but still accessible by public transit? That would save the boards considerable money on transportation. Yes, in some areas it would mean some sparsely-populated classrooms but given that teachers have been bellyaching about high teacher-pupil ratios for decades, is that really such a bad thing? I also think that split grades are not such a bad thing. After all, the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouses were the ultimate in split grades - the older children helped the younger ones and learned responsibility, and many subjects can be tackled by children of various ages, just with a greater or lesser degree of sophistication. I was very impressed recently, for example, with a project on photography that the students (of all ages, K-6 or possibly K-8) at Brooke Valley School in Perth had done. Mind you, I'm not suggesting a return to rote learning and corporal punishment or some of the other aspects of old-fashioned education.

I also have some reservations about full-day kindergarten. It's very expensive. Early childhood education is certainly important, but does it have to be in a classroom setting? There's probably no going back on that one but at the very least, it seems to me that it shouldn't entirely supercede half-day kindergarten for parents who prefer the half-day model. More important, in my view, is preparing teenagers for what they'll do after leaving high school. That includes possible attendance at university, although that should NOT be presented as the only socially acceptable option, and not necessarily something to be done right away, either. What about encouraging a "gap year" as they do in many parts of Europe?

Lots of issues. Lots of possible future blog entries here!
... but it was a beautiful, fall-like day for the Dyke March last Saturday. I found it a congenial gathering, just the right size (unlike the Pride March, which seems larger, more commercial - though I guess in some ways it's a GOOD thing that it's become so mainstream during my lifetime!) Anyway, I liked the friendliness, the intergenerational aspect, the consensual and refreshingly egoless style of the Dyke March. In flavour, it was very reminiscent of the consciousness-raising group I used to go to at the Ottawa Women's Centre during the mid-1970s. The fact that my daughter was performing afterwards in Minto Park and that both grandchildren were along for the ride didn't hurt either!

Fall itself has a rather different rhythm to it for me these days. Back when I was in elementary school, of course, it meant new clothes, new school supplies, a new teacher and group of classmates and often a new school too - although we lived in the same house throughout my school career, they were forever changing school boundaries as one or another school became severely overcrowded and new schools were built. And let me tell you, "overcrowding" had a very different meaning in my young day! I just have to laugh when parents these days complain that their kids' school is overcrowded because their kid is in a class with 25 or 30 other kids - when I was little, that would have been a SMALL class! My kindergarten class had over sixty kids in it (though mind you, there were two teachers). In subsequent grades, classes of 40 to 45 (with only one teacher) were the norm, and a teacher counted herself lucky if she had under 35 kids in her class - even if it was one of those now-dreaded split grades.

When I headed off to university in 1971, university classes didn't get underway until somewhere in mid-September (usually between the 15th and 20th of the month as I recall) and for many students, that meant an extra couple of weeks that they could work and earn money for the next year's tuition - though even allowing for inflation, postsecondary education was not nearly as expensive nor as ubiquitous as it is today. Nowadays, college and university students generally head off to classes no later than the day after Labour Day - which must make life extremely hectic for families who have children (including adult children) at various educational levels!

Once I had completed university, the rhythm of the seasons changed for me again, although there was still that feeling of autumnal renewal during my working life,
even pre-children, as folks came back from holidays and new projects and activities began.

Now that I'm retired, I'm almost finding summers to be busier than the fall, what with all the festivals going on in town - Music & Beyond, Chamberfest and next week, the Folk Festival (which used to be held in August).

Plus ca change...

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