Back to school — then and now

Published 4:25 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2018

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In less than a week, the big yellow buses will roll as the summer break ends for Virginia, including Isle of Wight and Surry students.

Back-to-school is a ritual that has deep roots. It’s not a whole lot different than it was when we caught the school bus back in the dark ages (that’s when televisions were black and white and not everybody had one).

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The ritual began, as it does today, sometime in late July or early August. Today, it involves a trip to some large department store to buy clothes and supplies.

Back then, a Dime Store provided the pencils, paper and crayons needed each year. Clothes could be bought at Geo. W. Delk or Bett’s, two department stores on Main Street. Or, there was always a trip to Sears Roebuck in Portsmouth or downtown Newport News.

In lieu of that, just open the latest Sears catalog and mail in an order. It would be returned quickly.

A new pair of dungarees (no called jeans back then) was a must for boys, as well as a new flannel shirt for when the weather began to cool. A flannel shirt from Sears back then could be bought for about $1.70 and dungarees for several dollars. Don’t laugh. That was a lot of money in 1952. High top tennis shoes were also standard equipment.

Dungarees, then as always, wore out first in the knees as boys have always spent a lot of time crawling into trouble. Unlike now, though, holes in the knees of jeans were not considered high fashion. They were considered an embarrassment to parents who couldn’t afford to keep buying new pairs. To reinforce the knees, there were iron-on patches. They were thicker than the denim clothes the pants were made of and they made the pants legs sort of flatten out on either side of your knees. They also had a terrible habit of peeling loose at the corners, an open invitation to get hung up on a fence you were climbing and to swish against each other as you walked.

Girls got a new dress and, at our house, they were often homemade, our mother being a gifted seamstress. Girls were required to wear nicer street shoes, though later on, they also began wearing low quarter tennis shoes.

Lunch boxes were mandatory and they were popular before our time and since. They have always made a personal statement for the bearer. Mine was Roy Rogers. Other boys preferred the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy or Davy Crockett. I don’t remember precisely what the girls had, though I’m sure somebody is going to remind me.

Since that time, lunch box decoration has largely been defined by the currently popular cartoon or human television stars. Fonzie was hugely popular for year as was, understandably, Star Wars. Cartoon characters such as the Road Runner were durably popular. Lunch boxes, now often made of plastics, have continued to evolve, but their popularity continues.