Catholic School Back To School Shopping: Myths vs. Realities

Ah, Back-To-School Shopping : such a gentle, consumeristic way to get over the end of summer vacation. However, as two life-long Catholic school students, our experience wasn’t everything the Staples and J.C. Penney commercials led us to believe. I’m watching the cycle all over again with my nieces and nephews – the public schoolers getting cute new outfits and the Catholic school kids getting their first necktie at age 5. [Find me something cuter than a kindergartener in business casual.] In honor of our ’90s and ’00s memories, here is a study in the contrasts between back to school shopping for Catholic schoolers and, if not real public school students, at least the too-cool public schoolers we saw on TV.


File under: My childhood as a walking Irish Catholic stereotype.

Expectation: I’m going back to school with a new wardrobe that will mark me as one of the cool kids!

Reality: I am wearing the same plaid jumper from the same Plaid Jumper Store as all of my classmates. Somehow, kids manage to sort themselves into Cool and Uncool anyway.

[Note: there is a 50/50 chance your uniform is a hand-me-down, or your mom bought it at the used uniform sale your school holds at the end of the school year.]

Expectation: At least maybe some fun, cute outfits for after school!

Reality: Those are called “play clothes” and they don’t come from the store, they come from a trash bag your aunt drops off every time your next cousin up has a growth spurt.

[Note: I realize there are Catholics without cousins but I’ve never met one.]


Expectation: And don’t forget the accessories!

Reality: … Which are knee socks, a navy blue cardigan, and a shirt with a Peter Pan collar during that five-decade range after Peter Pan collars went out of style in the ’60s and before they came back in style on Zooey Deschanel.

If you’re fancy, please add a headband in the same plaid as your uniform.


Expectation: Wearing some jewelry, I guess.

Reality: Bracelets are not allowed. Non-post earrings are not allowed. Necklaces are a pendant on a thin chain. If you want to consider rosaries jewelry (“WHICH THEY ARE NOT” – every Catholic reading this post, before I could even say it, right?), you can have those. But you cannot wear them, for Pete’s sake.

School Supplies

Expectation: Lisa Frank binders! Lisa Frank notebooks! Lisa The Frickin FRANK IT ALL UP.

Reality: There is a specific, solid color that every subject uses. Does The Vatican secretly operate the Mead company?

Expectation: Don’t forget a trapper keeper to stay organized!

Reality: Trapper Keepers strictly verboten.


Expectation: It would be so much fun to try a bright color or a crazy new ‘do to show people how much I’ve changed over the summer!

Reality: “No extreme hairstyles” – Catholic School Student Manual 29:11


Expectation: I will narrow down the most in-style looks and then pick out some sneakers, a pair of cute shoes, and maybe something a little dressier.

Reality: Your uniform requires shoes that meet all of the following criteria: black or navy blue. No laces. No wedges. No mules. No sneaker soles. Heel must measure less than one inch at the highest point. No ballet flats.

You are left with orthopedic nun shoes.

[Note: If you’re really wondering how we sorted out the cool kids, their moms bought them cute shoes that skirted the Shoe Canon of the student handbook, whereas uncool-kid moms followed it to the letter. As to what camp I was in, let’s just say I still like a sturdy pair of Clarks.]




Orientation Express: Revisiting College Move-In Day 10 Years Later

By now, most kids are back in the school routine and still in the honeymoon period of getting to see friends, being in a higher grade, and brand new school supplies (just me?). With this new school year starting, I’ve been reminded that it’s been a whole DECADE since I began a whole new experience in college. Yiiikes.

Earlier this year, we spent a whole week reminiscing about our high school experience, but anyone who’s been to college knows that it’s a whole different beast than anything you’ve ever encountered in your previous 18 years of living. Whether you stay in your hometown, move to a different region of your state, or go across country, every freshman still gets that ‘Holy crap what am I getting myself into can I even handle this level of responsibility’ feeling on the first day they move into college.

For me, it was a unique experience to say the least. My parents and I loaded up our rental van and drove from Rochester to Boston with all my crap in the back. Here’s a thing to know about the college I went to: it’s right in the middle of the city. Like the “campus” is blocks of downtown Boston. This was the view from the building I lived in my freshman and sophomore years.


With that in mind, moving about 900 students in on a busy Boston street is no easy feat. A lane of traffic has to be used specifically for freshman, and it has to be done very promptly and efficiently to keep the flow of traffic moving. I remember we pulled up to the building that was soon to be my home for the next 2 years, and looked out the car window to see (and hear) a bunch of screaming, enthusiastic college kids wearing the same shirt and for some reason, were really excited to see my car pull up. After a few admin tasks were completed, I vividly remember the very first moment I stepped out of the car and the important girl with the headset said, “Everyone welcome Traci to Emerson!” and a group of about 15 crazy people said “WELCOME TRACI” and cheered and yelled and started stealing my stuff. No, really. Well okay, they were taking everything out of our car, placing it in carts, and hauling it up to my dorm room so I would barely have to touch a thing (I didn’t lift a single item. It was the greatest).

Me, when first getting to my dorm on move-in day

The kids in the shirts, I would later find out were “OLs”, short for Orientation Leaders, made up of Sophomore, Junior and Senior volunteers who have a lot of Dunkin Donuts coffee and glitter running through their veins. In more recent years, the OLs have taken to dressing up in colorful outfits to, I don’t know, make the freshman feel more welcome? There’s really no way to accurately describe the shock when it comes to the very first moments of move-in day, so here’s a video instead. Also take note of the dad at 1:18.

The rest of orientation week was filled with icebreaker games (THE ABSOLUTE WORST) at this event called Hooray!, a guy nicknamed the “Dating Doctor” who talked about dating and sex, and as a girl coming from a Catholic education for all the previous years of my life, this was quite a change. There was a boat cruise, an epic dance where all the OLs dressed up in various costumes and busted moves along to popular songs of 2004 (similar to this, but imagine it being 10 years ago), and this 1980s safety video for everyone that had never lived in a city before. Honestly, they showed this, and in my opinion, it’s the greatest tradition our college has. A Bahston cop, dramatic reenactments, horrible acting, I mean, really.

“ATMs: probably the greatest invention ever to exist.”

In the end, Orientation week was a good way to transition into college life and not feel so scared about the daunting task of “being in college”. So for you freshman out there who still feel scared or uneasy about your new life, just know that the next four (or five or eight+, depending on the interest in furthering your education or level of long-term commitment)  years of your life will be some of the greatest you’ll ever have. You’ll make lifelong friends, you’ll learn things about yourself, about others, about LIFE. Just enjoy yourself. If those crazy OLs can let go of their inhibitions and wear tutus and banana costumes on the streets of Boston, you can make it through your freshman year.

PS: Please tell me our school wasn’t the only one with eccentric move-in/orientation events! Did any of you guys have a similar or horrible experience?


What Your School Portrait Backdrop Said About You


My brother looking pretty darn 90s.

If you had lasers, you were probably totally rad, in the parlance of the time. You were fashion forward and a bit of a risk taker. Or, you were really into technology, robots, and science. I don’t know why lasers were ever even introduced as a school portrait backdrop, when I think about it. They’re not really relevent to any kid’s experience. “Oh, you know Becky, she just loves shooting lasers!” That’s something no parent ever said. And they weren’t a general, neutral motif, even in the 90s. As an adult, laser portrait kids are probably style pioneers – you favor bright colors and eye catching patterns. At the workplace, you are on the cutting edge and willing to go out on a limb to get noticed. Or, you are really into technology, robots, and science.


I still remember this picture day. What I do not remember is why my mom thought scraping my bouncy childhood ringlets into a messy ponytail was an OK idea.

Your parents picked your backdrop. You grew up in a traditional household of rules and regulations, and your family stayed away from anything too flashy. Or, the other backdrops all cost extra, and your parents thought that something like unnecessary school portrait scenery was a waste of money. They may have also been very concerned about what your grandparents would think. If you chose the cloud background yourself, you were probably Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties. Today, former sky backdrop kids could go either way. You may have rebelled big time in high school and college, turning to some sort of counterculture that required outfits. I don’t care what — goth, hip hop, extreme country music fandom. It may also be that you kept your family’s values, and prefer a streamlined, tidy look. You try not to draw attention to yourself, and avoid displaying obvious status symbols. And when you have kids, you’re not going to throw your money away on stupid laser backdrops. Or whatever the equivalent of lasers is in the 2010s. One of my nephews could have chosen tie-dye, so maybe that.

Some years, my school offered this weird backdrop that looked like you were in a mahogany study, with bookshelves and a roaring fire. There may have been a Christmas tree with stockings hanging. At the time, this probably meant that your parents wanted a Christmas portrait to send to relatives, but were killing two birds with one stone by making the school picture the Christmas picture. If you chose it, it’s because you wanted people to think you lived in a mahogany-paneled estate. Either way, this translates well as an adult. Either you or your parents knew how to get what you wanted without paying out the ears, be it by combining Christmas and school portrait costs or by faking wealth. Now that you’re an adult, I bet you’re great with budgeting and cost-saving measures. You mix up all of those homemade cleaning ingredients on pinterest and are awesome at refinishing secondhand furniture.

That Gray Marbled Situation

My adorable nephew, who probably would have preferred lasers. Poor guy.

It was the only option your school had. Or your parents were very serious and hated fun and frivolity. Or you, yourself, were very serious and hated fun and frivolity. You probably have a super-serious occupation now, and avoid decorating or dressing in colors. Your 401K is probably bigger than mine.

The Double-You

My cousin, with face obscured because she never asked for this.

This option had mostly been phased out by the time I was a child, but lo and behold, one of my nephews had this done in the past year or so! What happens is this: The main photo is the kid looking head-on into the camera and smiling. Then, superimposed above the kid, is the same child in profile, staring inspirationally into the abyss. These pictures are one of the creepiest things I can think of. First of all, the inspirational profile kid is just a disembodied head. Second, it is just straight-up unsettling to see two of the same person in one frame. Presuming you don’t have an identical twin, I would FREAK OUT if I saw you and your double, standing one above the other. It’s like The Shining or The Poltergeist, or any other movie I watched on TBS and freaked out about for a week. So, who chose this backdrop? I think parents who wanted to be “artistic” or kids who always wanted a twin. The parents who went with the “double-you” option thought their kids were gorgeous, smiling or not. They thought relatives and classmates were missing out if they didn’t see your profile as well as the front of your face. Whichever way you cut it, your parents thought you were a stunner and wanted the world to know it. So where are you now? You might be really stuck on yourself and think you’re just the most attractive person in every room you’re in. You make it a point to angle your head up and to the side in conversation, so that people can get the full effect of your perfect profile. Or, I guess maybe your parents just instilled a high sense of self-esteem in you, and you have that.

Neon Blinds

Other brother, also spectacularly ’90s. I now understand why my dad called me “[brother] in drag” as a child, as I looked EXACTLY like this with long hair. Also, not cool, dad. Not cool.

If you wanted the flash and glitz of lasers, but they were a little too busy, then neon blinds were for you. You were probably fairly up on your trends, with at least somewhat lenient parents. I bet you were cool in high school. What does that mean now? You keep an eye on what’s new and trendy, but that doesn’t mean you follow every fad that comes along. Now that your parents are older, they probably are planning on traveling a lot in retirement, but think more Italy and less Bolivia.