"They're spoiled," the man standing next to me in line said.
I followed his glance down to where his two tow-headed children, 6-year-old twins by the look of them, waved the novelty pens he had been canoodled into buying. Dad was a good-looking guy, maybe 30 years old, with short-cropped black hair, waiting (like me) among mobs of last-minute school-supply shoppers at Staples. I noticed he had only a few items in his hands.
"I thought I was finished with this yesterday," he explained. "But then last night my wife got out the list." He shrugged. Ah, The List: graph paper, 5-inch scissors, five-subject notebooks, book jackets, green folder, red pens, oil pastels, watercolors, crayons, colored pencils, ruler, compass, black pens, Kleenex, yellow folders, composition books, No. 2 pencils and a sharpener.
Forget the first of January. Every year, as the day after Labor Day approaches, it feels like a brisk new wind blowing through the soul: a new school year. A blank canvas, a virgin blackboard, resolutions unruined, a fresh start.
"I'm looking forward to school," my younger son, a newly minted sixth-grader, suddenly blurted after weeks of bemoaning the relentlessly approaching end of summer.
This year the feeling was unusually intense, probably because over Labor Day weekend I drove my older son, a newly minted adult, 5 1/2 hours down to D.C., where he starts his first "real" job this week.
"Are you sure you don't want your baseball trophies?" I ask him. "What about the Austin Powers bobblehead doll?"
"No, Ma," he says, with infinite patience.
It's quite clear my sentimental longing for his lost childhood is awfully unrequited. That's what a fresh start means, isn't it? Out with the old, in with the new?
Back in the Staples line, the man's two blond children squabble about the relative merits of their identical pens. "Mine changes colors," brags the boy, pointing as the clear plastic fronds sprouting from one end shift from blue light to red, and back again. His sister, who has not yet mastered the technology, begins first to frown, then to pout.
"Spoiled," the man says again, slightly embarrassed.
"Oh," I said, "that's probably what your parents said about you." I was thinking, truth be told, about my own childhood, whose little luxuries have become unremarkable necessities for my children. The little 45 rpm record player I was so happy to get for my second-grade birthday has morphed into iPods, DVD players, video game systems, cell phones and personal computers.
That's what you get for living in a society marked by freedom, political stability, economic growth, innovation, scientific progress. In America, where each generation is better off than the one before it, we all look a little spoiled compared to our parents.
But the man corrected me. "No," he said, "We came from overseas. When I was 13. We had nothing."
"Where?" I asked. "Albania," he answered, and looking again at his two very American kids said: "They have no clue."
His words brought to mind fleeting images of all the hardships most human beings have had to endure for most of human history -- harsh realities that his children, American kids in the suburbs, could not imagine.
I smiled suddenly. "That's what it means to grow up in a country that's fat and happy," I said to him. "Your kids have no clue."
He smiled back at me, and nodded.
A fresh start, thank God.
(Readers may reach Maggie Gallagher at MaggieBox2006@yahoo.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2006 MAGGIE GALLAGHER