Next week children across the United States will start returning to school. Some will be lucky enough that they don't have to return to school until the week after next. Others will be luckier still, not having to return to school until the day after Labour Day. Regardless, most kids will be back in school by the first full week of September.
As a child I must confess I would feel a bit down this time of year, as summer vacation came to an end and I had to return to school. Oh, I would look forward to seeing my friends. And even as a child I preferred the cooler weather of September to summertime heat. That having been said, I never really liked school itself. I did not care for being cooped up in a classroom for eight hours a day, nor did I particularly care for having to do homework of a night. I do not think my feelings about school were anything unusual. I rather suspect most children do not particularly care for school.
It is because of this fact that I find it interesting to look at how going back to school is portrayed in the media. For the most part I think television shows have accurately reflected the attitudes of the average child towards school, even if very few TV series episodes have actually dealt with returning to school in the fall. On television it seem as if most schoolchildren dislike school, but do not actively hate it, which seems true to life. As an example, on Leave It To Beaver, it seemed as if Beaver Cleaver had a crush on every single teacher he ever had, but he did not particularly care for school and especially disliked homework. His brother Wally was a bit more responsible, but had much the same attitude. On shows from The Wonder Years to Boy Meets World, the lead characters seem to have regarded school as simply something to be endured.
While television shows more or less accurately portray children as disliking school, commercials are a very different matter. This is perhaps because the primary purpose of commercials is to sell a product. For that reason very few commercials take the somewhat negative, if realistic view, that children do not like attending school. Off the top of my head I can think of only two adverts from the past few years which portrayed children as not caring for school. One was a Staples commercial in which a father was merrily going through Staples picking up school supplies as Andy Williams' version of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" played. Following the rather happy father were his two children, both looking very depressed and dejected at the prospect of retuning to school.. This commercial is one of my favourite adverts from the past several years, While being very funny, it also portrays what is nearly a universal truth. Children don't particularly like school. Staples is not the only office supply chain that seems to grasp the fact that children don't particularly care for school. A recent Office Max commercial simply portrays a mother sending her son back to school. As he is on the bus he waves to her, looking despondent. His mother also looks unhappy. The mother then realises she is still holding his lunch and starts to run after the bus. This Office Max not only does a great job of capturing the fact that most children do not particularly care for going to school, but that parents often have difficulty letting them go.
Of course, most back to school commercials do not take this path. After all, for the most part commercials seem to avoid any sort of negativity, so that it would not be desirable to show children hating school. Perhaps for this reason most back to school commercials take a more neutral approach. For instance, a recent L. L. Bean ad shows kids enjoying the wilderness as "Rock Candy Mountain" plays in the background. It ends with children boarding a school bus. While the children are obviously enjoy tramping through the wild, there is no real sense of joy at boarding the bus. Of course, there is also no real sense of dejection either. The ad makes no comment on whether children enjoy school or not. It simply shows that the backpacks one can buy L. L. Bean can be used for camping or for school. A recent WalMart commercial simply shows a mother who expresses melancholy that her child is starting school. Here there is nothing showing the child's thoughts on the subject, simply the mother's slight sadness that her child is growing up and will not be home with her during the day any longer
While the majority of commercials are neutral towards going back to school, there are actually a few that seem to indicate children love school. In a recent Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats commercial children joyously rush into a school as its doors open. I am fairly sure this has never happened in real life. When I was in school we generally trudged into school on that first day, not particularly eager to be there. A Kleenex Sneeze Shield commercial also seems to show children enjoying school. The advert shows children at school engaging in a clapping game as a rather happy song plays in the background. The voiceover on the commercial explains how Kleenex Sneeze Shield helps catch sneezes in their tracks, so kids can "continue to pass on the fun of learning." I know it was true when I was in school and I suspect it is more true now, but I never describe school as "fun."
Perhaps the most unrealistic commercial portraying children returning to school is from Target. The Target advert portrays three triplet's first day at school, all the while the song "Free to Be You and Me" plays in the background. Now the song "Free to Be You and Me" was written for the record album and book of the same name, published in 1972. The purpose of the album and the book was to attack gender stereotypes then current at the time and encourage children to be themselves. It should be no surprise that the song "Free to Be You and Me" is essentially about being oneself. Not only do I find it strange that Target portrays returning to school as a happy occasion, but that in the commercial they use a song that does not characterise schools in the United States at all. Sadly, I think the average school is much more about rules and conformity to a community standard than teaching anyone to be himself or herself.
Regardless of the portrayal of children returning to school in TV shows and commercials, many kids will go back to school next week and still others will return in the weeks to come. And despite what some television commercials may claim, I rather suspect they will not be happy about it. Okay, maybe most children will not absolutely hate school as Bart Simpson does, but I think they might well dislike it the same way Beaver Cleaver did.