A Different Kind of Back to School Tradition //  Trina O’Gorman

A Different Kind of Back to School Tradition // Trina O’Gorman

In late August, we always take a trip into New York City. There’s nothing unusual about us going into Manhattan. Prior to the pandemic, we'd trek into the city about once every six weeks. But our late August journey into “the City,” as we New Jerseyans often call going to Manhattan, has been a special family tradition for years. The routine is that we get up, feed, and walk our dog, Zelda, pack our backpacks, and drive to our good friend Jeffrey’s house, where we leave our car. We then walk a couple of blocks from his house to the Bay Street train station in Montclair and take either the 11 AM or 1 PM to New York Penn Station. Once in New York, providing the weather is nice, we walk to 6th Avenue near 41st Street to our favorite destination for back-to-school shopping, Kinokuniya, a huge Japanese retail destination. It’s a tradition that is so dear to my heart, though the story behind it is a bittersweet one. 

When we were a family of four, when their Dad was still living with us, we didn’t go to New York for school supplies. Back to school shopping was always done locally; school supplies came from our local office supply store, Staples and clothes were purchased at the mall. The supplies that we’d get were only those that were listed on the supply lists for each of their respective grades and supplied to us by their schools. We would usually go shopping for school clothes and school supplies after our family summer vacation to places like Ireland to visit family, or Hershey Park in Hershey, Pennsylvania, or glamping in a yurt in the Catskills. The vacations would be great, but the trips to the stores for back to school shopping would be somewhat stressful. The stores were always crowded with other people doing the exact same thing, and it was never fun. 

Things changed a lot after their Dad left. Money was a lot tighter. There were no summer vacations to look forward to, and back to school shopping was not only stressful because the stores were crowded, but also because money was so very tight. That first year in 2014, when we were on our own, it was really sad. There’d been no fun vacation to come back from. We hadn’t even joined the town pool. And then, before we knew it, it was time to go back to school. I remember the strain and stress that I felt, and I felt so badly for them. 

So, the next year, I decided we’d start a new tradition of making shopping for school supplies a really big deal. We’d still adhere to the standard list of mandatory supplies that came from the school. Those things we’d still order online or get from our local Staples. But then I surprised them by taking them on a trip to New York to get a few “special” supplies. Kinokuniya had an awesome stationery department on the lower level of its three-story store. We’d always go on the weekend, so one of them could travel for free. And the journey was such a big deal, the only place we’d go all summer long, that it substituted for our vacation. 

After we’d shop for their special Japanese school supplies, usually a couple of writing instruments in great colors, a few fun erasers, and folders you’d never find in Staples. Then, we would get bubble tea and Japanese snacks and head across Sixth Avenue to Bryant Park, where we’d sit by the fountain and hang out for a while. They’d read manga or Pokemon magazines from Kinokuniya, or we’d look at our purchases. We would also people watch, which is one of our favorite things to do in busy cities. After a few hours of relaxing, we’d walk back to Penn Station to take either the 4 PM or 6 PM train back to Bay Street Station in Montclair, so we could get home to eat dinner and walk the dog before it got too late. We’d be pretty exhausted from the journey, and even though it was just a day trip, it meant something to us. It meant a lot to us actually. And even when things got better, and we could go on family vacations, we’d still make our way into the City to go to Kinokuniya for our few “special” school supplies. 

This year, in the midst of the global COVID-19, I like many others, have decided not to take the kids on a long vacation. We have made a couple of road trips out of town, during the lockdown, to stay in the mountains, where we could take advantage of changes of scenery and fresh air, which is certainly better than nothing and something for which we are grateful, but not the same as getting on a plane and going away. And, as for our trip for school supplies, I just don’t feel comfortable going into the City to go inside of Kinokuniya to browse around for hours. Maybe I’m being overly cautious and paranoid. Aidan will be a senior in high school this year, which marks a special milestone. But still, we’ve decided against our traditional journey. And then, because school will be remote, at least until November, each asked why we would go anyway. There’s no need for the supplies they’d usually get because learning remotely on the computer is different than learning in the classroom. 

I/we like many people are finding our old routines and activities inadequate for these difficult and challenging times, and I’m trying not to be saddened by that, but rather to take it as an opportunity to be reflective and adapt. I’ve learned so much as a result of my love for all things analogue, but also from the simplicity that I have come to know and appreciate because of my connection with Baum-kuchen, Wakako, and her beautiful family. They share with us glimpses into a peaceful life that does not focus on materialistic things, but on camping and drawing and chickens and quality time spent together. These things are comforting to me, in the face of all of the challenges that this season is presenting; and so, this year we will start new routines and new traditions, ones that can withstand the changes that are before us. 

We will begin with each of the boys receiving a beautiful Classiky Desk Tool Box from me for “back to school” and to make this unprecedented time in our lives. I already have one of my own, and it has been one of my favorite artifacts for quite some time. In theirs, I will place writing instruments, postcards, and stamps. There will be plenty of room remaining for them to add trinkets, treasures, and artifacts of their own, as they continue to journey through their own lives. But right now, it is my intention that we spend some time writing postcards and letters to family and friends, who we miss so achingly much. If this time has taught me anything, it has been the incredible value of the love that we share with each other. Our love and kindness have the ability to soothe hearts and souls during the most difficult times and to hopefully stretch over miles. 

I wish everyone a happy, meaningful, and healthy back to school season. Love to all.



  • mary: September 25, 2020
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    what a lovely reflection. i have dearly missed kinokuniya, it’s a place i would frequently head to for a soul-soothing hour or two when i lived in manhattan, and then after when i was commuting in from new york state. your decision to gift the classiky box is wonderful. it will be so interesting to see how these are filled and used -and how they change and become a source for inspiration over the coming years. be well. stay safe. thank you for sharing.

  • Glenda Merkley: September 25, 2020
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    I always love your stories! They are so riveting that it is almost like being there with you! Have an amazing back-to-school during this trying time! Sending hugs!!

  • Caroline Donahue: September 25, 2020
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    What a beautiful story, Trina! I have loved Kinokuniya for years, having spent a lot of time in the SF and LA branches. It would have blown my mind to get my school supplies there as a kid. It is so true how our routines and traditions have changed during this time. You’ve inspired me to get back to the post cards that I’ve collected to send friends and family- thank you! And I hope they enjoy their Classiky boxes- best back to school present ever. 💜 💜

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