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Harry Potter and the Back-to-School Shopping


J. K. Rowling almost certainly had this exact pencil case in primary school.

We’ve just finished reading the first Harry Potter book to May Blossom. It’s been excellent timing as, like Harry in the Philosopher’s Stone, May Blossom is about to start school. But I would like to make a complaint: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is unrealistic. The parts about the school itself are fine. Primary school is largely about confronting dragons and trolls, as far as I recall (although in my day it was more bomb scares and the ghost of Lady Hay). But the back-to-school shopping part? Utter fantasy.

First of all, Harry’s parents don’t have to do it, because they are conveniently dead. I’m not saying being murdered by Voldemort is preferable to a Sydney shopping centre in January, but it’s a close-run thing. Instead, Harry is taken by Hagrid to Diagon Alley, which is a lovely little one-stop outing. They begin in a  pub, where everyone’s having sherry. Smart move — sober back-to-school shopping is for fools. Next they head into the Alley itself, were all the ittle shops sell one thing each: robes, wands or critters. You know what is not like Diagon Alley? Chatswood.

Chatswood has two bloody shopping centres. It was designed by Voldemort. You battle for a parking space in one, do your damnedest to get everything you need there, and fail. Then you have to either move your car a hundred metres up the road to another multi-story carpark, or try to do it on foot withing the free parking limit of the first centre. You can’t win.

Some of the things you need aren’t even available in either shopping centre and instead you have to go somewhere completely random, like Lowes. Lowes is a menswear store that sells massive Hawaiian shirts, cheap suits … and the one particular kind of art smock for five-year-olds that May Blossom’s school requires. There is no way you can know this unless you have a friend who has done it before. A Mrs Weasley of sorts. Luckily I have one of those friends, so I can send her panicked text messages about how my kid is about to be bought the WRONG KIND OF SMOCK and will therefore be doomed to be in Slytherin and be bullied and will amount to nothing because the smock has elastic on the neck and not Velcro tabs at the back. Your Mrs Weasley-type friend will reply calmly that you need to go to Lowes. They have the art smocks at Lowes, for God’s sake calm down.

Next I needed to find a pencil case. May Blossom likes the colour blue. I thought she’d probably like her ‘small pencil case’ (whatever that even means) to be blue. But it seems that pencil cases don’t really come in colours anymore. They come in brands. Ninja Turtles, Frozen, Star Wars, or Monster High. Those are your choices. I wanted none of those, thanks. I finally found a pile of the ones that have little windows that you slide the letters of your name into. I’m pretty sure they haven’t manufactured these since 1976. The use of the name Joanne on the sample is a dead giveaway. Has anyone met a Joanne under the age of 35?

Then there were the crayons. May Blossom hates crayons and hasn’t used them since the first packet we bought her at the age of one. She peeled all the wrappers off, crumbled them to dust in her fist while staring in our eyes in a disconcerting manner, and after that we moved on to pencils and textas. Everyone has been just grand ever since. But now she is meant to front up to school with a twelve-pack of wind-up crayons. You know the ones – they always have them in the pot of kids’ drawing equipment at RSLs and kids never draw with then, they just quietly sit there winding the crayon right out of its fitting until it snaps off. Then they request ice-cream.

So I went and bought a 24-pack because I tend not to read instructions. When I realised it was meant to be a twelve-pack I freaked out. I couldn’t just giver her half of the 24-pack, because which half? Which twelve colours? What if I gave her dark green and the first assignment was to draw Kermit? I was setting her up for failure. I went back and bought a twelve-pack. I was so addled with panic that it never occurred to me to just look at the twelve-pack and see which colours were in there and use the corresponding ones we already had. Now we have 36 crayons no-one likes.

Buying the school uniform was straightforward enough – they had a uniform sale for the kindy kids at the end of last year — but washing it? I have no idea. Part of the uniform is bright egg-yolk yellow. I need to pre-wash it but does it go in the white wash or the dark wash? Or do I need to do a separate yellow wash? Why is everything so hard? At the moment it is going into the white wash, because I figure I would rather have all our white things be slightly yellow than have her yellow shirt be greyish, because I was the kid whose white school socks and cream blouse were always grey and I maybe haven’t entirely moved on from that.

To top all it off, I have a second child who starts pre-school this year too. I can’t quite cope with that idea. He is a BABY. A baby with nudist tendencies. I have no idea how this is going to play out. All he needs to attend school is a lunch-box. In a phenomenal display of hypocrisy I bought him a entire Snoopy lunch kit: sandwich and snack boxes, insulated lunchbag and drink bottle. It seems branded merchandise is okay when it’s something I like too.

Oh, and I bought them both shoes. I took them to the shoe shop where Mum used to buy our school shoes, and the human equivalent of a pencilcase with the name Joanne on it fitted their shoes. He is the same man who fitted my school shoes, thirty years ago. His name is Paul and he appeared to be sixty years old both then and now. He may be a wizard. It was very much like when Harry buys a wand: Paul made May Blossom try numerous pairs of seemingly identical shoes and then selected the one that did the most damage to my Gringotts card.

Now I just have to front up to the school gates and watch my babies cross the threshold. I’m not sure I can let them go. Luckily, we have two more weeks of summer holidays, most of which will be rainy, and by the end of this our relationship will likely have disintegrated to Dursley-Potter levels of sick-of-each-other and come the first of February they will run through the barrier to platform nine and three-quarters like they are being chased.

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