Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back to School

Back to School is a very bitter-sweet time. It’s like a tension cocktail: excitement, optimism and fear all mixed together. Now add to that the pressure of last- minute shopping in an economy that doesn’t look pretty. You get the picture.

I was lucky enough to be part of it all this year, including the shopping. And I say that without a speck of sarcasm. Because I can say it as a grandmother who has lived through it and emerged unscathed for the most part. Wiser now, rejuvenated, and ready to participate with joy.

Emily had already done most of the shopping but we waited for about the last third of it until the day before school started. Knowing our family’s grand tradition of the annual “Back to School Nervous Breakdown” my daughter and I planned a calm day. I took the grands to see Nanny McPhee after church, filling them with popcorn but not too much sugar. Then we wrapped all of our serenity about us like a blanket of calm and went to the store.

I’ll have to say it was exactly what I expected. Target’s parking lot was full. Before we even got out of the car we took a moment to calm ourselves. Emily found her Happy Place and we practiced a few prayers that might come in handy. We started out with St Francis’ prayer (“Lord make me an instrument of peace..”) followed by a couple of recitations of the Serenity Prayer. That seemed to help.

The shoe aisle was the worst I had personally ever witnessed. Discarded, mis-matched shoes and boxes carpeted the floor. We watched one woman spend a lot of time screaming at her sons because the store-issued electric wheelchair/shopping cart wasn’t working properly. She finally stood up in disgust and stormed off, leaving the wheelchair blocking the aisle. For a minute there I was hemmed in, with the shoe mountain on one side and the wheelchair on the other.

After clothes, our next stop was the grocery store for lunch supplies then Walmart for locker supplies and we were pretty much done. We ordered a pizza delivered, followed by evening showers and bedtime. Not a tear was shed. I have to admit I was a little disappointed since a generation ago our family usually looked like the Osbournes on meth on nights before school started. I spent the night in case the next morning required a Grandmother’s touch, a soothing voice or a clear head to call 911.

Plus, I was the designated morning adult because Emily left super-early for work. She works at a day care center and she had 100 other kids to worry about. The first day of school was multiplied by 100 for her.

It was fairly easy duty. About all I needed to do was make sure everything got brushed and lunches made. I took a couple of pictures of getting on the bus and headed home.

When I got into my car and headed home the car radio was playing one of my favorite songs, almost like a sound track to my morning. It’s the theme song to “Working Girl”, written by Carly Simon. I have two favorite scenes in the otherwise forgettable movie: the beginning and the ending. Both scenes are magnificent pieces of composition, imagery and photography.

The movie starts with a wide shot of crowds of office workers on their way to work in Manhattan, walking down the sidewalks and getting on the ferry. Then the camera gradually moves into a close-up of the movie’s heroine on her way to work. The song was released the year Elizabeth graduated from high school and it has always reminded me more of our children’s journeys in and out of school than office workers:

We the great and small stand on a star
and blaze a trail of desire through the dark'ning dawn.

It's asking for the taking. Trembling, shaking.
Oh, my heart is aching.
We're coming to the edge, running on the water,
coming through the fog, your sons and daughters.

Let the river run, let all the dreamers
wake the nation.
Come, the New Jerusalem.


The first day of school is always bitter-sweet at its best. The morning is so full of promises while experience tells us that a large number of those promises will fall short or be broken. Boyfriends will be made and lost. Friendships will fail. Grades won’t guarantee jobs or money. Jobs won’t fulfill us the way we dreamed they would. But we dream anyway.

My other favorite scene in the movie is the ending. The working girl achieves success and the camera shows her in a windowed office. The shot is again majestic and poetic, reversing the opening scene by starting with a close-up of the heroine and backing out to a wide shot. I’m not sure how they managed to shoot it; it had to have been technically difficult and it’s just a marvel to watch. The camera looks through the window from the outside, showing a close-up of Melanie Griffith at her new desk then pulls back in a steady long shot to show the gorgeous office building. We are clearly to be impressed with her success.

But watching the movie 20 years later, time and circumstance has imposed a whole different emotion at the shot, something that causes me pause every time I see it. As the camera pulls back even farther we see the beautiful majestic building in all its glory. And there’s no mistaking that it’s the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

The first time I watched the movie after 9/11 I gasped at the scene. A simply gorgeous, majestic building. A building with a soul.

As it happens I will be in New York City on September 11th this year. I have to admit I orchestrated the date to coincide after Elizabeth and I decided to visit NYC in the fall. I’ll have a few words on that next week.

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