How Much for the Real Thing?
On the way to my first day of kindergarten, I rode with my best friend, Erin, in the back seat of her mother’s sedan. Draped in plaid uniforms, we compared our new school supplies. Pack of twelve washable markers?
“We got the same kind!” (I’m sure one of us squealed.)
Bottle of non-toxic paste?
“Oh this smells funny!”
Each neatly stored item in our book sacks got ripped out of place for our careful inspections.
“What is that?” Erin asked.
What is what?
“It’s my book sack,” I said.
“It doesn’t look like mine,” Erin said, as she examined my multi-colored contraption.
No, it doesn’t…but I think I remained pleased and distracted enough for the remainder of the car ride. Paste! When finally I arrived in our new world, different colors and sights and smells lured me, and my other classmates, to explore all over this home away from home. And along the way, we examined each other. Too young for empty introductions and too old for mindless dribble, we naturally sized one another up in our heads. Uniforms restricted most of this game of comparison, but that only led our young eyes to study further. Pretty white tie shoes with some pretty colors on the sides. Hey, that other girl has those on, too! But wait, mine don’t look like that…
“I like your book sack,” I remember saying to one girl. And I did. It was perfectly fitted on her five-year-old frame. It was a warm lavender color. It had two straps.
“Is that yours?” she asked me, having spotted my yellow, red, and blue patterned bag.
“Yes,” I answered rather meekly and confused.
“That’s not the right book sack,” she said. But before I could ask why, another kid called her from across the room.
“Katie! Come see!” And off she dashed.
I looked around the classroom, from book bag to book bag. Brown ones, black ones, pink ones, and Katie’s perfect lavender one. There were different colors, but they all had two back straps. Then I saw my own multicolored sack. Not only did it scream out with an obnoxious Technicolor vibrancy, but it really didn’t seem to be a book sack at all. Rectangular shaped, with two small red straps, I was holding in my hands the child’s version of a briefcase!
Of course, I didn’t realize all of that at the time. All I knew was that my fellow classmates had matching bags in which to carry their books. But I had brought in an eyesore, a loud, impractical piece of educational machinery. I don’t doubt that my teachers looked upon me at first with surprise and then with a sly grin, predicting my future. “Look at that little MBA in waiting!” What I saw, though, was an extreme oddity, an unmatching mutation from the surrounding uniformity.
The briefcase tormented me from this moment on. I would go home every day and beg my mother to buy me a “normal”-looking backpack, one with two straps for the shoulders, not the hands. Maybe one in brown or pink? Maybe even purple? For the love of God, just one with two back straps?
“Why do you need a bag like everyone else has?” my mom would answer me. “Yours is fine! It’s pretty! It holds your books just like the other booksacks do.”
She just didn’t get it. So I had to work with what I had. I hung the sack off one shoulder, like an over-sized purse. Or, worst of all, on some days I would open the bag entirely, slide each arm through the two handle straps, and “create” my own normal “book sack.” I actually walked around school with the briefcase protruding from my back like a big rainbow hump.
Months passed before I was finally able to get my mother to buy me a mainstream bag. (“This is only because you need more space for the next school years!” she caved.) I felt liberated at long last. Armed with a two strap, mocha brown kiddies Jansport to die for, I could get on with school…or so I hoped.
* * * * *
Only recently have I begun to recognize some manifest effects from my early school days, to put two and two together and evaluate the miscalculation I still feel about myself now. An evening not too long ago, while digging through boxes of old pictures, I found a small, square one of myself. I’m five or six, in front of a flowering shrub, with the briefcase slung over one shoulder.
Good God, I can see it so clearly, at five or six, so young, so impressionable, I had already missed the fitting-in mark despite all the protection school uniforms (and motherly-inherited handbag ignorance) promised. Uniforms don’t stop the urge to differentiate yourself from the group. If anything, they amplify the exact opposite of what they try to protect against: commodity competition. Matching blouses and shorts can only deflect so much. Shoes, socks, book bags, frilly hair ribbons, glasses or no glasses. At the tenderest of ages, this determined who was with it and that I was definitely out of it.
For girls, what will one day feel like a lifetime battle of keeping up begins right there. Scholars now study the origins and dangerous effects of this “girl-fighting,” these kinds of accessories competitions to characterize popularity and social standing. But looking back now at myself, at the picture of me with the briefcase, I see a cute, grinning girl, holding a very fashion-forward tote.
So could all of this have started that first day in kindergarten? Years of feeling “unpopular,” often still to this day? Years of racing desperately to be the first one to get the latest “in” thing (especially the best looking bags)? I put that picture of me in my wallet recently, hoping the next time I take it out I’ll figure out what the briefcase’s “real” impact on my psyche has been. But the more I look at it, the more I like that bag. The briefcase really was cute. The straps look adjustable, and the colors work together. I can’t believe I had such a cute bag! I can’t believe that…oh no…it’s shaped kind of like the new bag I just bought! I have four other purses currently in rotation, and they’re all quite large and (some might say) quite garish, just like the briefcase. I don’t think I want to make any more childhood connections for now. I want to keep on thinking that my new Balenciaga knockoff is really a very modern, isolated fashion choice. Yes, it’s got a rather loud color scheme and two straps. But at least I’m over trying to wear it like a book sack.