Back-To-School Shopping in America: A British Parent’s Survival Guide

Don't forget your list! (CMN)

Don’t forget your list! (CMN)

It’s back-to-school time in the U.S. The stores are full of discounts, the aisles full of pens, pencils and erasers (pronounced with a soft “s” by the way, and not a “z”). Fortunately, many American kids don’t have to wear a school uniform, so there’s no second mortgage for a new blazer or worse, finding that you’ve left it too late and the regulation socks are sold out.

For British parents in the States, back-to-school time can be something of a learning curve. First of all, they go back when? Most of us are used to schools going back in early September, but in many parts of the U.S., the kids go back in August. Given that many of them have had three months off, you won’t complain about the start of school, but the timing can take you by surprise. If your child is on a sports team, they are often required to spend two to four weeks practicing before term even starts. Learn from my errors, if you’re thinking of traveling in the summer, check the sports schedule as well as the school calendar.

Even if there’s no school uniform to purchase, there will be a sizable shopping list, with items that may as well be written in hieroglyphics. I’m talking about Trapper Keepers (fancy, brand name for a binder in which you can insert tons of stuff) and project jackets. Although the kid usually needs a binder or two (not called “files” by the way), said binders can be of varying widths, D-ring or round-ring, tab-closured, zippered or heavy-duty. Please note, they are invariably 3-ring, so don’t use your old 2-rings unless you want to spend hours and hours punching two holes into virgin paper.

Similarly, paper folders aren’t just well, paper folders. You’ve got your 2-pocket, slash pocket, and file folders, as well as pocket portfolios and the aforementioned project jacket (which isn’t part of the school uniform). Not surprisingly, paper itself also has different names, as this handy dandy chart explains. Most of the time, the kids will be using Letter, which, at 8.5 x 11 inches, is almost but not quite A4, but, there’s more than one type of Letter paper, natch. Lined paper can come loose or in notebook format, and the notebooks can be spiral bound or pad format, which in turn can be top bound or side-bound. Your options are also wide, medium or narrow ruled and frequently college-ruled, which sounds very important but is another word for medium-ruled. Kids may also be required to have a Composition book, which is basically a jotter, a smaller, bound book of lined paper.

Many U.S. students have metal lockers, just like you see in the movies. In my experience, the only locker paraphernalia usually required is the padlock or combination lock, which I warn you, are like gold dust in the days before school starts. In addition however, kids might want a locker shelf to maximize the teeny space provided, magnetic pencil holder and even a magnetic mirror for the back of the door. Oh yes, the locker accessory market is big business, with locker wallpaper, magnetic flowers and, wait for it … locker chandeliers.

Like I said, it’s one big learning curve for British parents and kids alike.