Watch CBS News

Back to School: Then and Now

Mature Woman Using Hand Sanitizer During Airplane Trip
(Photo Credit:

Summer's halfway over, and the days are growing shorter. That means back-to-school is right around the corner! Kids everywhere look forward with anticipation and excitement (and maybe a little dread) to the new school year. Going back to school in 2012 looks a lot different than it did in previous generations, seemingly more complicated. But in many ways, it's pretty much the same.

These days, it's all about the kind of shoes you're wearing. Flip-flops are perfect for tooling around the neighborhood when the weather is warm. But as the seasons change, kids pull out the mid-calf suede Uggs and lace up the overly rubberized high-tops that the NBA stars were wearing just a few months before. Long gone are the jelly shoes from the '80s, in rainbow colors from neon orange to clear with silver sparkles to purple. Does anyone still wear black patent leather Mary Janes of our parents' and grandparents' generations? In fact they do, in a more updated version. Kids today also sport the classic Converse Chucks, though the colors range far beyond the traditional blacks and whites.

Jeans are still popular, even if the styles have changed. And boy have they changed. Styles today run the gamut from ultra-distressed to stiff as a board. The fit might be super slim or super baggy, low-cut or hanging completely off someone's rear end. One thing is for sure, only moms and dads still wear their jeans high on their waist and barely touching their shoes. Jeans have been popular kids' clothing for generations. And if the return of bell-bottoms a few years ago is any indication, the styles that now seem lame will be back again someday. Fashionistas are already combing the thrift stores looking for those perfect pants. Can anyone say "acid wash"?

Backpacks come with wheels and handles now. They can protect a laptop computer and recharge a smartphone with the power of the sun. All of them have some sort of mesh pocket for a water bottle. Water bottle... whatever happened to the water fountain? Bookbags used to be red plaid with buckles back in the day. As textbooks got thicker, bags evolved into something more like what we see today. Kids of any generation are strong and full of energy, but there's only so much they can carry.

With all the laptops, tablets and smartphones, students don't have to carry all the books we had to. The information they need is right there on a little device. And if it's not, it's accessible in moments via the internet. Our bookbags were filled with Trapper Keepers, spiral notebooks, multiple textbooks and a pencil case. Now a student may have an agenda book for tracking assignments, a pocket folder to hold the homework printed out from the computer and maybe, just maybe, a calculator. That's it. And if the school allows smartphones, the calculator stays at home. So much is available to today's students. But as with previous generations, a student still has to learn his lessons.

Kids still have to eat too. Technology hasn't found a way around that yet. Lunchtime in the cafeteria involves sitting at the right table, gossiping and swapping food with friends. The difference between now and then is what that food is and how it gets from home to school. Kids still want peanut butter and jelly on white bread, and parents still push the fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The tide is slowly turning from the prepackaged and store-bought to the organic and home-grown. Kids still eat what they want to eat, but parents are trying to provide healthier options.

We had to bring lunch in a metal box emblazoned with E.T., Gremlins or Back to the Future images. Lunchboxes still exist, of course. But reusable insulated bags are also very common. We never used to care about plastic sandwich bags and other forms of waste. But we now know they end up in landfills and harm the planet. So little by little, we're trying to make the world a greener place.

Organizing and scheduling are a big part of going back to school. Most parents have to work, so today's kids go to after-school programs until mom and dad get home from work. These programs have a schedule for homework, snacks and free play with lots of other kids. Dinner, piano or soccer practice follows in the early-evening hours and then it's bath and off to bed. Older kids might skip the after-school care and fill their afternoons with after-school activities. Gone are the days of hanging out with friends and goofing off. Growing up is a lot more structured; free time is often at a premium.

So much has changed over the years, but it's all been in the details. The basics of going back to school—of being a kid—have stayed the same. Each fall presents shiny new experiences, with all sorts of ups and downs. This generation of students looks different than we did. They wear different clothes, play with different toys, sing along to different songs on the radio. They have different ways of learning. But deep down, kids haven't changed all that much. They're nervous and excited for the new school year. They're just like we used to be.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.