The beginning of the school year has meant different things for me as I have gotten older. When I was in elementary school, the end of summer meant no more glorious all-day ball games, bike rides and other adolescent adventures.
At Central Catholic, late August marked the return of Friday night football games, early-morning bus rides and the daily decision of what tie to wear.
In college, this time of year meant I was finishing a summer job and making my annual trip to the campus bookstore to part with most of my money for my required textbooks.
I am 42, so you might think by now the end of August is just an inconvenient stretch before the long Labor Day weekend and the start of the NFL season. But when you are married to a teacher, you remain very cognizant of what this time of the year means.
For me and my wife, the end of summer unofficially occurs sometime in early August, when I take a day off from work to help her set up her classroom for the upcoming year. Once July ends, we typically have something similar to the following conversation:
"School is starting in a couple weeks," my wife says. "I think I'll need your help getting some important supplies ready to go."
I look up from the TV, checking my watch. "OK. I think the state store is still open. I'll run out now."
"No, not that. I mean setting up my classroom. I am still putting my list together of how I want things arranged."
My wife is an excellent teacher, and she works very hard to get her classroom ready to welcome her students. On my help day we usually get to school very early so I can give her as much time as she needs.
Elementary school classrooms are vivid, colorful places, with posters and pictures on the walls that remind students how important it is to study, treat each other with respect and keep trying, no matter how difficult the assignment.
I always think of how different these rooms are from my college classrooms, where the walls were bare except for (if it was an early class) a few half-asleep students, out too late the night before, who slumped against the hard surface for support. Or maybe the walls weren't bare? I can't remember now; I was very tired at the time.
I'd like to think I give my wife an honest day's work when I help her. She has her battle plan for the day, and I do my best to lug the books and supplies she needs into the room, stand on the chair to tape posters and signs in the higher places, and even sharpen the pencils she'll need for the students for the first day of class.
Every year I find myself taking pride in how the room looks when we're finished; I am happy that I played a small part in helping her get ready for the school year.
When her school has its annual evening open house in October, I like to come by and visit her, but I also enjoy seeing my handiwork. By then student assignments and other student projects are up on the walls as well, but I can still see the remnants of the work I did during that August day.
When I began attending open houses, I hoped when I entered her classroom any students present would burst into applause, saying something like: "He's the one who put up that poster about doing your homework! If it wasn't for him, I would have blown off everything this year." But that has never happened. I guess my glory must remain silent and anonymous.
However, despite my age, some things in regards to school never change.
This year my help day for my wife was interrupted by a change in time for a meeting she was scheduled to have later that day. My next task was to do the pencil sharpening, and to be honest, it is my least favorite job. I seem to have lost the ability to operate a pencil sharpener; by the time I get a nice point on the pencil, there is barely any of it left.
But, with the time of her meeting changed, my wife had to hurry to get ready, so she thanked me for helping her and told me I was free to go home, pencils unsharpened.
I have to say, a flash of excitement hit me. An early dismissal from school! Whether you are 12, 22 or 42, that feeling never gets old.
John DiRicco of Penn Hills, a training administrator at Carnegie Mellon University, can be reached at email@example.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255.