Talking About “Back to School”: Small Talk in the USA

Posted On: August 8, 2017

Back to school“There’s 104 days of summer vacation, and school comes along just to end it…” 
The title song lyrics to the Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb sums up the feeling that most American kids have between early August and early September. After a long summer vacation, kids and preparing to go back to school during this time of year. 

To clarify, no, kids do not have 104 days of summer vacation! School kids (grades 1-12) have about 60-70 days of summer vacation, while college students have about 100 days of summer vacation. Clearly with such a long summer vacation, preparing to go back to school is a big deal. 

When is “Back to School” season? 
Well, this depends on the area of the country and the school district. From a recent, informal poll of the author’s Facebook friends that live in different parts of the U.S., here are some estimated “first day of school” start times:

31: Atlanta, Georgia 
31: Indianapolis, Indiana 

7,9: South Louisiana

2nd week: St. George, Utah 
16: Olathe, Kansas & Rogers, Arkansas 
21: El Cerrito, California 
23: Raymore, Missouri 
24: Bay Area (near San Francisco), California 
28: Chapel Hill, North Carolina 

6: Spencerport, New York 
Day after Labor Day: Moab, Utah & Cleveland, Ohio  

What is “School Shopping”? 
While parents are a bit eager for their kids to go back to the routine of academics, kids are not usually so eager about going back to school and sitting at a desk all day. While that is true, many kids do get excited about school shopping. School shopping in the US consists of buying new clothes and a plethora of school supplies. Some schools send parents a letter in the mail with the checklist of supplies. While parents grumble about their budgets, vehemently stating, “money doesn’t grow on trees,” the items on this list can reach in to the hundreds of dollars. It is easy to see how the stores and retail outlets cash in with their wide range of ‘back to school’ sales. 

Are Back-to-School Sales Only for Students? 
While it is a debatable issue if back to school sales save shoppers money, back to school sales do help average office-going professionals as well. Many of the school supplies like pens, pencils, papers, stationary and other equipment are found in a wide variety and selection in almost all stores this time of the year. For anyone who wants to stock up on office supplies, this is the time of year to do it.

While the stores are rolling in the cash, and families spend their hard earned dollars to prepare their kids for going back to school, children mourn the last few days of freedom of the summer vacation and dread the early mornings and long days sitting behind their desk at school.

Some common phrases/questions/small talk Facebook friends have shared that are related to the “Back to School” season:

What is the tax-free weekend? 

The US State governments are exempting certain school supplies from sales tax on a certain weekend, usually a few weeks prior to start of school (e.g. Texas and Virginia are two states with theirs in mid August.). This has almost become mandatory for the states; otherwise they lose revenue to neighboring states where they DO have the tax holiday. Of course, some say it is not worth the long lines and the rush to save a few dollars. Note, that while this tax-free weekend may appear to be the time to shop, saving you money, for some it only saves enough to go out to dinner or for going out to a movie (maybe US $10-30 or so).

What is “meet the teacher” night?
Some schools open the school for a few hours one evening a week or so before school starts, so kids and parents can meet their teacher(s) for the upcoming year before the first day of school. It’s also possible that kids will be able to meet some of their prospective classmates who will also attend this event. These events are not mandatory, so not everyone attends.

What are first day of school pictures?
The tradition of taking photos of kids in their new clothes on the first day of school, or getting on the bus the first day, or even walking in the school on the first day is so ingrained in the US culture, that Americans may find it interesting that people of other cultures do not have this “tradition.” That being said, having lived in India the past two years, I have seen more and more Indian parents in India adapting this tradition, posting their kids first day photos to Facebook! (Note there are several other trends in first day and last day of school pictures that are in vogue.)

Joining any teams this fall?/Playing any fall sports? 
This question is directed more at Junior High (7th and 8th grade) or High School (9-12th grade) students. In many American schools, fall sports practice sessions may start a few weeks before classes even start!

A fun word search activity was created for a training I delivered on small talk, holidays and special times of the year for Americans. This word search is found in the PDF below. Enjoy!

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Related Posts: 
My Teacher Gave Me The Wrong Grade, What Can I Do?
Holidays in 2016
How to make small talk with US Americans 
Small talk for the 4th of July  
How Americans Think About Vacations 

Note: Store logos, names, brand names and ads used as examples only. Authentic Journeys is not being paid for any specific product or retail placement in this post.

Photo credits, listed by order seen in post: Jennifer Kumar (first 3), Preethi Kannath, Jennifer Kumar
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