Back to school lines

I’ve always liked school uniforms. They save parents a ton of money. They put an end to the wars between Mommies and Johnnies over what to wear each day. They stop the "keeping up with the Jennifers" that triggers ridicule for children who can’t afford the latest fashion accessory. And the kids just always look sharper, so maybe they perform a little better. Many public schools around the country have adopted the uniform policy.

When I was a kid, I feel like I wore the same uniform for three years running, long past the point after the pants became "highwaters." Being from a family of ten, I just figured Mom was saving money. But now I know the real reason.

This week I took over the duties of buying the uniform for my daughter Grace. My wife instructed me that there was only one store that sold the uniform for our school. And I know she was right, because I wound up in line with every parent in the tri-state area who needed one.

I knew I was in trouble when I walked into the store. I recognized another parent who was leaving. She had a pained look on her face. “Are you all right?" I asked. "I am now. I’m leaving. You, on the other hand, are just getting here."

First there was the line. It was endless. But we suddenly realized that this was the line, to get on the line. After that there was the line, to get in the line to pay. In between, you had to get a sales kid to go to a back room to find your stuff. Why the uniform store was run like a shoe store I have no idea.

Much study has been done on the psychology of waiting. Corrals are used to keep people moving faster, even if they are going nowhere fast. Elevator lobbies frequently have mirrors. (Studies show that people don’t mind the wait as much when they are looking at themselves-maybe the study was done on TV people!) And of course now places like gas stations have added video monitors, so you don’t get bored while you pump.

Needless to say, this store had no corrals, no mirrors and definitely no monitors.

After one hour and twenty minutes, we reached the Promised Land: the checkout counter. A young kid, with a bright, shiny name tag that read "Joseph" said, with a straight face, "Is there anything else you wanted that couldn’t be found? Some of the girls here don’t know what they are doing." Grace then said, "Well I wanted a blue pullover, but the girl said you didn’t sell them."

At that point Joseph, eager to win salesman of the year at the worst-run store in the United States said, again, with a straight face, "Well of course we have that, and I can get it for you, IF YOU WANT TO WAIT A FEW MINUTES."

I looked at Joseph in disbelief, thinking to myself that the only thing I wanted was to get out of this store and never return. But for some reason, I only thought the words, and never said them. Joseph took my silence as another sales opportunity, and said, "Stay right there, I’ll go get it."

I wanted to scream, but like Rose in Titanic ("wait, come back, come back") I could only muster a whisper. Joseph had deserted his post at the register, now making me the least popular person at the front of a line of about 100 thousand parents, still looking for their own blue pullover.

Incredibly, in the only happy ending of the day, Joseph returned in about three minutes, sweater in hand along with a bright smile of accomplishment on his face.

It occurred to me that Joseph in a few short years would be running the place, and then maybe things might improve. But of course in that case, he would not be behind the register anymore.

I will not tell you the name of the store. Remember, it’s the only one that sells my kid’s uniform. And she will no doubt grow three more inches next year.

I am still a fan of school uniforms. I just hope I never have to buy another for the rest of my life.



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