The First Day: What's Your Back To School Ritual? Students and parents often kick off each new school year with annual rituals -- buying new shoes, taking a last-minute trip, or picking out a shiny new lunchbox. Writer Sally Friedman shares three generations of back-to-school memories.
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The First Day: What's Your Back To School Ritual?

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The First Day: What's Your Back To School Ritual?

The First Day: What's Your Back To School Ritual?

The First Day: What's Your Back To School Ritual?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Students and parents often kick off each new school year with annual rituals — buying new shoes, taking a last-minute trip, or picking out a shiny new lunchbox. Writer Sally Friedman shares three generations of back-to-school memories.


By now, most students are back in school. And along with all the usual anxiety of prepping for the first day, many students also have a back-to-school ritual - a new pair of shoes maybe, a new backpack, special outfit, or waking up extra early for a special breakfast. For writer Sally Friedman, the first day of school meant special outfits and endless mother-daughter psychodramas with that primal scream: I hate my hair.

What are your first school day rituals? Tell us your story. The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sally Friedman wrote the column A Lifetime of Back to School Days for the Philadelphia and Inquirer and joins us from her home in Moorestown, New Jersey. Welcome.

Ms. SALLY FRIEDMAN (Writer): Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

LUDDEN: So you wrote a very touching essay, and you said: I never though I would miss those days. But the rhythms are still lodged in the marrow destined to surface like some long-forgotten dream. You still feel it even though your children are not in school anywhere anymore?

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. That long-forgotten dream continues to surface.

LUDDEN: So what did it mean to you as your children were growing up and Labor Day rolled around? What happened?

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Well, there was definitely an end to the delight of summer freedom, a whole lot of squinty anxiety going on with my three daughters. And because, perhaps, they were three daughters, a lot of looking at fashion magazines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRIEDMAN: I remember that quite vividly. Now they are sending their kids off to school, so the cycle repeats itself.

LUDDEN: And did you - you know, was there something that you would do, any rituals that you had as a family?

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Oh, indeed. Indeed. Shopping was probably the primary one. Taking pictures on the front lawn, absolutely. And that standing at the kitchen door as they got older and waving goodbye feebly was the ritual that I think I remember the most and with the most pain, actually.

LUDDEN: Did you cry?

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Of course, absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRIEDMAN: They didn't, which is a good sign.

LUDDEN: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: We have a few emails already here. Let's see. Here is Steve Lunver(ph) from Lansing, Michigan, says: Both of my sons have graduated high school. But every first school days - every first day of school from kindergarten to 12th grade, we took a picture of them in a man's large T-shirt with their graduation year on the shirt like(ph) class of 2010. It gave us a record of our children growing up and is a great way to save memories of our boy's first day of school. That sounds very sweet.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Very impressive and strategic too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Organized, very - much more organized kind than I've ever been. Okay, Julana Coward(ph) writes in as well: I had to have a new box of 16 count Crayola crayons at the beginning of each school year, a new box each year during elementary, middle, high school and throughout each of my undergraduate years at Clemson. That's like taking the teddy bear to college. She took her Crayolas. She calls herself a 24-year-old loyal Crayolist.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Well, old habits die hard. I do - that resonates for me, because as I had written in the Inquirer piece, there was that shopping which was not so desperate in the beginning for pencil cases and crayon boxes, but selecting the right book bag really became intense. And that was, of course, as the girls got a little bit older and peer pressure really kicked in.

LUDDEN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, I remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRIEDMAN: So do I.

LUDDEN: Actually, I remember my best I saw my best friend who - the person who would become my best friend, first day of fifth grade, wearing this really gaudy, frilly dress her mother clearly had forced her in.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Uh-huh.

LUDDEN: And I thought, she - I want to know her. I would not wear that, but I want to know her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Well, yeah. I think there are too many examples littering the emotional landscape of those dresses that we forced on our kids. I don't know whether that happens anymore when kids wear shorts and pants. But my daughters always wear those plaid first day of school dresses with white collars that don't exists anymore.

LUDDEN: Yeah. Let's bring in a listener. Susan is on the line from Aiken, South Carolina. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: Good. So tell us about your ritual.

SUSAN: Well, this is the ritual that we've had for all the years that my children were in school. I've gotten a little thing shaped like a piece of bread that said, good morning. It would emboss the toast with good morning. And so I would - the first day of school I would emboss the piece of the toast for good morning.

LUDDEN: Wait. How do you that, before or after the toaster?

SUSAN: You do it before so it would be nice and brown when it came out of the toaster. And I would serve that - always the first day in school. And this year I sent daughter away for her freshman year of college, and so I sent her a picture of the toast because I couldn't be there with her.

LUDDEN: Oh, and it sounds like it's emotional for you.

SUSAN: Well, she's my baby girl. And the last one, so you know - it was, but it was good because (unintelligible) college life now.

LUDDEN: Well, Susan, thank you so much for sharing that.

SUSAN: Thank you.

LUDDEN: We have Keith on the line from Boise, Idaho. Hi, Keith.

KEITH (Caller): Hey, yes. My tradition I tended to have is that I'd always put on the wrong clothes in the morning. I'd...

LUDDEN: And you mom loved that one, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: Yeah. Yeah, exactly, yeah. I'd tend to get dressed almost in the dark, breaking the habit of waking up late in the summer. You know, I do that even into my college years now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Did you start out doing it on purpose?

KEITH: Well, yeah. My mom always said that I kind of looked liked I'd walked through a rainbow when I got up in the morning.

LUDDEN: Oh, that's cute. All right. Well, thank you, Keith.

KEITH: Yeah, thank you.

LUDDEN: Sally Friedman, can we ask you to read just a little bit from part of your essay? I love the part about, you know, picking out first-day outfits.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Of course. There was the ever-pressing matter of first-day outfits that meant endless mother-daughter psychodramas acted out in cramped dressing rooms. Then came the scramble to find those pristine new school supplies that had to pass the ultimate cool test. First, there were simple pencil cases and crayon boxes to select, but later anguished searches for just the right book bag took on an intensity that stunned me.

And always there was the primal scream: I hate my hair. No back-to-school haircut at our house was ever right. At around 11:00, each daughter staged a major meltdown because of some misunderstanding about what the words just a trim really meant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRIEDMAN: I never thought I'd miss those days, but as you had said earlier, the rhythms are still lodged in the marrow, destined to surface like some long-forgotten dream.

LUDDEN: And now you've got - you talk about watching the neighbor kids go off and kind of being sentimental about that.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Exactly. I feel very forlorn that there are no little ones to send off, and that kitchen door standing is very lonely now. There's nobody to waive off. But yes, I do watch other people's children and amaze myself by wishing I were there again.

LUDDEN: Let's hear a teacher's perspective. Melissa is on the line from West Michigan. Hi there.

MELISSA (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: So what are your rituals?

MELISSA: Well, I'm a kindergarten teacher. And every year I wear a golden skirt and a burgundy shirt, and I take a picture of my students on the first day.


(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: And they - so do they keep that picture in the classroom during the year or you send it home with them?

MELISSA: Both. They keep it and then the parents get to keep it.

LUDDEN: And do you see any rituals maybe as your students come into class or with their mothers?

MELISSA: Oh, they always come in with new backpack and pencils and all ready for the first day of school. So today was the first day.

LUDDEN: Oh, it was. How did it go?

MELISSA: It went great.

LUDDEN: The gold skirt must be a good icebreaker.


LUDDEN: Well, thank you for your call, Melissa. Kristina(ph) is on the line from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi, Kristina.

KRISTINA (Caller): Hello.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

KRISTINA: Well, we are having actually a tradition in progress. I have three boys - 10, 12 and 14 - and every year since the first one went to kindergarten, the day before school we have gotten their height, their weight, what grade they're going into, who - where the school is they're going into. And on that first day of school it starts every morning with a picture with this information. And my 14-year-old this year said to me, Mom, are you really going to have me do this? And I said, yes. And I told him - I said, this is the way for us to show how you've grown and for something for you to look back on. And you know, I'm sure maybe some of the relatives are, like, look at this big kid taking this picture. But it's so precious to me. I mean, I just hope he keeps on humoring me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: That's great. Thank you so much for sharing.

KRISTINA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Let's get one more in here. Karen(ph) in St. Louis, Missouri. Hi, Karen.

KAREN (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

LUDDEN: What do you do in the first day of school?

KAREN: Well, my daughters are sophomore in high school and college now. Back -starting when they were in kindergarten, we - I always gave them a little gift at the end of a school day so when they came home they have something to look forward to. I've done it every year. Except for the first year that I sent the older daughter to college, I forgot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAREN: And my freshman in high school, it was very sad. But we did go out to the store and she got an extra special gift that year. And they still remember and still expect it.

LUDDEN: I'm feeling very remiss as a mom now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: I never thought of that one. Thank you, Karen. Sally Friedman, you know, if you - can you pick this up halfway through or does that defeat the whole point?

Ms. FRIEDMAN: I am taking notes to give my daughters some of these wonderful ritual ideas. They are just lovely. And I thought of another one at our house, but it's a little abstract, but I'll try to explain it. The night before school I would spend equal time with each of our three daughters doing the building egos lecture, about how wonderful they were and how privileged I am to be their mother, hoping that it would ease some of the angst that came by middle school age when nothing seems right and you feel like you're never going to fit in and the big issue is: who will like me?

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: So I do remember that. And I think I kept it up until seniors in high school. I couldn't very well have that bedside chat when they went to college, but I wish I could have.

LUDDEN: Oh. We have an email from Melissa(ph) who says: A back-to-school tradition in our neighborhood is Krispy Kreme donuts passed out by parents to students as they walk to school. After six years, today was the day I accidentally broke with tradition, so I'll be making up for my error tomorrow.

And another email from Grace(ph): My back-to-school ritual is the week before school starts, I make a string bracelet and make a wish that whatever grade I'm going into will be fun. I also do this on the last week of school and wish the summer will be fun. It's pretty cool since I never take it off and - until I grow out of it.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's have another caller here. Barbara(ph) is in Bedford, Oregon. Hi there, Barbara.

BARBARA (Caller): Oh, hi. I used to insist on having brand-new pair of black patent leather shoes. And they were always so slippery that every first day of school, I would always fall down...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARBARA: ...and skin my knees royally. And - but I never associated the slippery shoes with falling down, so I considered the first day of school was a bad luck day for me.

LUDDEN: Oh. But you got over that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Did your mom have to drop you off in tears, or did you, you know...

BARBARA: Well, no. I usually would fall down at school, very bad luck day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Oh, dear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: That's very sweet. All right. Let's see here. Pat(ph) is in Arkansas.

PAT (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: Hi, there. Go right ahead.

PAT: Yeah, this isn't so much of a tradition or - as it is something that keeps happening. And that's that I'm going to college on my V.A. G.I. Bill

LUDDEN: Uh-huh.

PAT: And every single year, there's always something wrong with it. And it's not just me. It's every single service member I know that goes to my school has this exact same thing. And it's always the same, like, the newer students get really, really mad, but then once you get toward the end of your degree, everyone just kind of like takes it with a grain of salt and laughs at it.

LUDDEN: You mean bureaucratic...

PAT: (Unintelligible)

LUDDEN: ...snafus?

PAT: Yes, yes. That's exactly it. Like, this year, they said that, like, I had $3,000 that I owed them and I absolutely did not. And I had to drive all the way up to Muskogee just to fix it. (Unintelligible).

LUDDEN: Well, that's not a fun ritual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAT: Oh, no, it's not, but it's definitely a ritual that happens to everyone I know.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thanks for sharing that. Okay. Let's take one last call. We have Michelle(ph) in Fort Wayne - woops - Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hi, Michelle.

MICHELLE (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: And what's your ritual?

MICHELLE: The ritual for my three children is we have pancakes the very first day for school - very first day of school. And then as they're going out the door to the bus stop, I always yell behind them: Remember, everybody starts off with As. And, by now, of course, that I have a middle schooler and two high schoolers, and they are sort of saying it in unison with me as they exit the door. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHELLE:'s kind of a joke now, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: That's very sweet. Well, thank you for sharing that.

MICHELLE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Sally Friedman. Any advice to mothers out there, or fathers out there, or, you know, now that your years of ritual are over?

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Wow. I guess I am something of a veteran. I guess one thought that comes to mind is how different each child is and how going off to school for each one is such an individual unique experience, and we can't expect the second to react exactly as the first. I think that's a lesson we all need to remember, anyway. And probably the other one is try not to let your kids see you crying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRIEDMAN: It sort of upsets them, I'm sure, but there we are, wiping away tears.

LUDDEN: Sally Friedman is a writer. Her essay, "A Lifetime of Back-to-School Days," was published this past weekend in the Philadelphia Enquirer. She joined us from her home in Moorestown, New Jersey. Thank you so much.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

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