While I wasn’t the first to take up a new trend or get the latest gadget as a child, I still participated in the back-to-school frenzy of getting new clothes and school supplies. I grew up during the ’80s when hair was big and clothing glowed in the dark. I distinctly remember trips with my mother to pick out that “first day of school” outfit. It marked the end of summer and gave kids a chance for a new start.
The back-to-school ritual hasn’t changed much, but trends have—especially for Jersey City youth who experience school in a dynamic, urban setting. While many schools have dress codes or uniforms, kids still find ways to stand out.
“They have to make a fashion statement,” says Jersey City dad Lawrence Sanchez. He has three children: LaDayna, a freshman in college; Lawrenz, a sophomore at William L. Dickinson High School; and Lauren, an eighth grader at Franklin L. Williams Middle School No. 7.
Both Lawrenz and Lauren have had Michael Jordan high-top sneakers—or “Jordans”—on their back-to-school lists. They seem to have inherited their affinity for sneakers from their father who could hardly contain his excitement the night before school.
“Every September was like Christmas,” recalls Sanchez. The night before the first day of school he would place his new, low-top blue suede New Balance sneakers right next to his bed. “I barely slept,” he says.
Nerdy things, but how nerdy?
“Going back to school was always the resurgence of the Aqua Net battle … the hair spray wars,” says Jersey City parent Gabby Creery who was also a child of the ’80s. She has two sets of twins, 10th graders Devin and Mia, and sixth graders Caitlin and Siena Malmad.
“My mom takes all of them shopping now,” says Creery. Devin goes to Saint Peter’s Preparatory School, Mia attends County Prep High School, and Caitlin and Siena both go to Learning Community Charter School.
While one outfit will do for three of her children, her daughter Siena “will try for everything and anything,” Creery says. “Every year it is an eccentric list that is reflective of where she is at in the world. She will always push the boundaries. She’ll need accessories, a hat, Dr. Martens…”
“New shirts,” adds Sienna. “I stockpile T-shirts … usually ones with references to nerdy things.”
The pair of yellow Wigwam socks that I wore on top of a pair of teal socks when I was a sixth grader to match the colors in my outfit would probably fall into the category of “nerdy things” nowadays, but not in a good way. And while kids may pull their socks up to their knees instead of scrunching them down like I did, socks are still a major form of self-expression.
“She will want me to get her fun-colored socks so she can express her style,” says life-long resident Veronica Gonzalez about her 11-year-old daughter Mariah. A fifth grader, she attends Frank R. Conwell No. 3 Elementary School.
“Being that she wears uniforms to school, she really likes fashion,” says Gonzalez.
Before the start of fifth grade Mariah also requested heels, but that didn’t go over too well with her mother.
“She is definitely too young,” says Gonzalez. “That would be an accident waiting to happen.”
Boys also have to wait until they get older to show off certain accessories.
“My son wanted an earring and I told him to wait,” says Sanchez of his son Lawrenz. “Once he hits 17 or 18 years old, it will be more appropriate to wear an earring.”
Pods, pads, and phones
What else gets cut from the list? Anything that may draw too much attention, especially if kids take public transportation as in the case of 16-year-old Teresa Cartagena. Teresa is a sophomore at Saint Dominic Academy. When she wanted an expensive North Face backpack, her mother, Mary Cartagena, said no. She says her decision wasn’t so much about the expense but about safety. She told her daughter, “Someone will see you and wonder what’s in it.”
Cartagena grew up in Staten Island in the ’70s. “You didn’t think about status,” she says.
You also didn’t think about iPads, e-readers, tablets, or smart phones. When I was in elementary school, only one person had a computer in her home.
“Back then, it didn’t take much for you to prepare to go back to school,” says Sanchez. “Now, the way technology has evolved … things are more difficult.” As a parent who oversees three different schedules and multiple needs per child, he says he will have to buy each one an iPad and a computer as they progress. All his children have smart phones.
“Every year the shopping list gets more expensive,” says Creery. All her kids have iPhones. Her son Devin uses a laptop for school while her daughter Mia is in an iPad program.
“All of her textbooks are on her iPad,” says Creery. She says she already had to upgrade the iPad Mia used freshman year because it didn’t have enough memory.
“We had to buy a $100 calculator for my sixth grader,” says Cartagena. Her 12-year-old daughter, Olivia, attends Learning Community Charter School. Olivia uses a Chromebook computer for school while her older sister Teresa was given a new laptop when she started high school.
“I know in [Mariah’s] classroom, everything is more tech-savvy,” says Gonzalez. “They assume you have a computer or laptop or an iPad.” Her fifth-grade daughter goes online everyday to do homework.
Paper, pens, and pencils
Despite the heavy reliance on technology for homework, grades, and organization, students are still required to have a standard set of supplies, including a notebook, pens, and pencils. The old black-and-white composition book hasn’t lost its popularity and remains an item on some local schools’ lists.
“Lately, it just seems they want books,” says Cartagena. “At one point they were reading electronically but now they want physical books.”
It’s no surprise that books are back in—so retro, so nerdy—with just the right amount of urban cool.—JCM