Back to school


On Monday, Czech schoolchildren will return to their classrooms after two months, among them some 93,000 first graders. In recent weeks, we've seen some serious back-to-school preparations. The contents of shop windows changed from swimsuits and inflated toys to schoolbags, pencils and the like. Also, reports on television have been showing how much all the school supplies are costing parents this year.

It occurred to me only recently that September 1st had gradually turned into a commercial opportunity. I noticed some years ago during my summer visits to England how important the return to school was commercially. Almost imperceptibly that side of the occasion seems to have prevailed in this country, too. With the gradual commercialisation of most holidays and rites of passage in this country, the return to school has become just another feast for retailers. Ads in newspapers read "Back to school with a new PC", in pharmacies you can buy "Back-to-school" dental kits for children; "Buy school supplies worth 1,000 crowns and get 20 blank CDs for free" - a sign in a shop window reads.

It used to be so much different some 20 years ago. Retailers did not advertise because they did not have much to offer. The return to school seemed to be much less dramatic. You got a bag, a pencil case, a pair of slippers (yes, Czechs do change shoes in schools) and that was it. No cones filled with sweets, maybe just a little toy in the morning for the excited first graders.

Basic school supplies were given out to children for free: watercolours, rulers, pencils, notepads and so on. As a result of this generous policy, after the 8 years of primary school everyone had ended up with drawers full of pencils and unused notebooks. I still have them somewhere.

This year, the parents of 83 percent of first graders have received 1,000 crowns from the government towards school supplies, 82 million crowns in total. But as everything has become more expensive, some parents have complained it doesn't cover the needs.

I guess every generation has to put up with their own different types of nuisances. While a few decades ago, it was tiresome and endless speeches about the importance of education for world peace and socialism, today it is having to face the pressure of commerce. In this case, frankly, I don't know which is worse.