Here in Americaland the school year begins half way through August, about a month earlier than it did in England. The back to school advertising campaign therefore begins to make itself felt around the end of July, this year intruding on my own existence mainly as Brec Bassinger's face plastered all over my local supermarket. Back 2 School Solved, the campaign promises, cleverly substituting a preposition for a numeral so as to give mega-wicked shout outs to text-invested juveniles whilst simultaneously fostering the falsehood of a new school year constituting a font of conundrums so fiendish as to tax the wisdom of Gandalf himself.
What will the kids wear this year?
What will they eat?
Clothes and food in that order, would be my suggestion.
You may remember Brec Bassinger from such shows as Bella and the Bulldogs, according to Wikipedia, although I don't, and I'm not even convinced that Brec is a name; but I suppose Bella and the Bulldogs is popular with the yoots, so there she is in my local supermarket, peering over the top of her sunglasses and promising to unravel the enigma that is back 2 school. She goes undercover in the television commercials - a false moustache, a comically unconvincing disguise, and a surreptitious wink to the viewer as she infiltrates the school to see what sort of shit the kids be into in the two-double-zilch-six. Suddenly she spots a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunch box...
'Sweet!' she declares, as the mystery dissipates and all becomes as clear as an unmuddied lake. That which was unknown and unseen to the eyes of men is now known.
Back to school in England - at least from 1977 to 1981 - was mostly just grinning kids with pencils and folders. It was depressing, but without any obvious suggestion of George Orwelling anybody into believing we might be looking forward to it. Maybe some were, but for the most part I hated school, notwithstanding those details which made it seem endurable - mainly the art lesson and break time.
So far as I can tell, Junior accepts school as a necessary evil. He doesn't seem to hate it as I did, although I think he's remained more or less impervious to Brec Bassinger's enthusiastic anticipation of the new academic year and all those cool Steven Universe backpacks it will herald. From his generally cheerier disposition I gather he at least appreciates the difference between this school and the place he attended before, a military academy seemingly specialising in churning out the sort of loyal overmoneyed Republicrat drones for which Texas is unfortunately renowned. Back to school isn't so bad as it may once have seemed, I suppose.
It's also back to school for us, his parents, or at least his mother and stepfather. We are invited in for some parent-teacher thing one evening. We meet the teachers we've already met on a number of occasions and they show us around the different class rooms.
We see some kind of general workshop equipped with screwdrivers, benches, handsaws, and a couple of 3D printers because we're living in the future, and a teacher assures us that the kids will be making stuff this coming year. Next we visit a drama studio with one wall taken up by mirrors just like in Billy Elliott despite this being Texas; and then a miniature television studio with cameras and editing equipment which makes that to which I had access when taking my degree in Time Based Media back in the eighties seem somewhat pitiful; and finally the maths room, or maths lab, or the room where they do sums. A teacher explains to us how she will be concentrating mainly on the genius-level kids and the rest will just have to do their best, but I think she's some kind of assistant who's there to help out the regular maths teacher, and it won't be quite so Darwinian as it sounds.
Junior's English teacher is present, so I take the opportunity to have a word with her. I can't actually remember what subject she teaches but she was born in England and moved to San Antonio at the age of eleven, so obviously I'm curious. It turns out that she grew up in Surrey, but I experience a brainfart and am unable to recall quite where that is - below London somewhere. I don't know if I've been there.
Similarly I don't really know why we're here, and neither does Bess. Over the past couple of years we've seen enough of the school to have some faith in its teaching staff. We trust that they know what they're doing, and the kid seems to be learning stuff, if the endless liturgy of facts and statistics he spends evenings barking at us in lieu of conversation is any indication.
'Did you know that there's a fish which can literally fly out of the water, like it can really fly?'
'Yes,' I say, leaving my wife to make the encouraging noises.
'Let me see,' he elaborates as though particularly glad that we should have asked. 'Um, well it literally flies. I'm not joking. Basically it like literally flies out of the water,' and he's off on a halting reiteration of whatever he retained from school that day, usually seguing into drivel from the internet, a video of the man who ate the world's hottest chilli pepper, observations shared by the really important YouTube people, the sort of inconsequential crap which even Brec Bassinger probably doesn't care about that much.
Still, right now we're waiting in the hall by the lockers. They're the sort of lockers you see in teenage dramas set in American high schools just before you switch the television off and read a book instead, which I state because we didn't have lockers in my day, just crappy sports bags tattooed with badly rendered logos of heavy metal bands in blue biro. Junior's locker is by happy coincidence next to that of the girl he likes. She's not quite his girlfriend so much as a friend who is a girl, so far as we can tell. She likes riding bikes, Minecraft, and sheep. We've met her but we don't know anything else about her, or even whether there is anything else about her. Anyway, when the lockers were assigned, our boy found he was right next to Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl, so he was very happy about that.
The teachers are going to see us all one on one - or presumably one on two in our case - and each will give election promises of how much more educated our child will be under his or her tutelage by the time June swings around and the school year draws to a close.
'Isn't that what they've just been telling us?' I ask. 'It's like they don't think we believe them.' I imagine the boy turning up on the first day. Teachers are sat around playing poker. One points in the general direction of the library and mutters knock yourself out, Brainiac.
'Yeah,' confirms Bess. 'I really don't feel we need to see every last room. Maybe we should duck out before they start up again.'
So we duck out, and get the rest of our evening back.
We attended similar events at the previous place, the military academy. All I can recall are overmoneyed facelifty crackers grilling teachers about whether their seven-year old will get extra credit for reading more books than is scholastically required by the curriculum. I guess tonight's gathering was mainly for the benefit of parents of that type, those who lay awake at night worrying over the certainty of little Poindexter's future career in the upper echelons of management, the kind of parents who probably shouldn't have bothered having children in the first place.
A week passes and we're back again, this time at some sort of pool party in Alamo Heights, a stone's throw from the school. I have even less idea what this one is about, but suppose it's just a social thing for the sake of it, so what the hell? Why not?
The day hasn't gone too well, and I've been running late in everything I've done. I make a pie and some coleslaw to take along to the pool party because it occurs at the time of evening during which we're normally eating, but the pie is a pain in the ass to make, taking much longer than anticipated and involving a lot of swearing. I'd been hoping to fit in some weeding for the sake of both the garden and exercise but I don't get time, so I decide to swim instead.
The pie turns out okay, and is a definite improvement on the underwhelming crap dished out by the food trucks at the previous pool party. Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl is a no-show unfortunately, so Junior takes to the centre of the pool and spends on hour practicing his diving. He's very good.
I swim the length of the pool about six times but I'm too poor a swimmer for it to be pleasurable and I keep getting dive-bombed by little kids. It also bothers me that I seem to be the only adult in the pool aside from one of the teachers, so after I feel I've suffered enough, I give up and climb out.
I notice the English teacher and remember that Marian was from Surrey - Richmond or Twickenham or one of those places filled with horsey types. It occurs to me that the English teacher may even have been at school with Marian. Nothing would surprise me any more.
As I look for my wife I pass a girl I'll call Eva. She's in the same class as our boy and clearly has a thing for him. She's a tall, skinny and endearingly pushy kid about whom Junior's grandmother said, 'I really get a kick out of that girl.' We all think Eva's great, so we've been trying to coax the boy in her general direction to sadly little avail. Eva's star burns mystifyingly dim set next to that of Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl, whom we must therefore assume has hidden qualities.
I suppose what will be will be.
The kid has a couple of friends here tonight, but there he is alone at the centre of the pool doing his own thing at the beginning of a new academic year. I suppose he and I probably have more in common than I realise.