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What was back-to-school like 80 years ago? One family shares memories

If your kids are feeling nervous about the first day of school, they're part of a long tradition.
Four generations shared school photos and memories with TODAY Parents ahead of back-to-school this year.
Four generations shared school photos and memories with TODAY Parents ahead of back-to-school this year.Courtesy Mike Grudzinski, Giovanna Bernardon, and Theresa Grudzinski
/ Source: TODAY

August means parents everywhere are prepping backpacks and lunchboxes, and picking out the first-day outfits in anticipation of a new school year.

Four generations! Theresa Grudzinski (right) poses with her mother, Giovanna Bernardon, son, Mike, and granddaughters, twins Harper and Amelia.
Four generations! Theresa Grudzinski (right) poses with her mother, Giovanna Bernardon, son, Mike, and granddaughters, twins Harper and Amelia.Courtesy Mike Grudzinski, Giovanna Bernardon, and Theresa Grudzinski

While back-to-school fanfare has evolved over the years, some traditions — including mixed emotions about returning to the classroom — have been felt for decades.Just ask the Bernardon-Grudzinski family.

Giovanna Bernardon, 88, of Syracuse, New York, told TODAY Parents that going back to school was an exciting time for her. An avid reader, Bernardon said “just going back to school and learning” was the best part.

“I would read toilet paper if they wrote on it,” Bernardon joked. "Anything I had to read I would read into the middle of the night and my mother would take the light bulb out of my bedroom light. She was afraid I'd go blind, which happened many years later."

Bernardon recalled one time her father's own love of reading worked to her advantage.

"My father love to read too," she explained, "He put the light bulb back in my bedroom and said 'Don't read too late, mom doesn't like it.'"

As for back-to-school outfits, it was “blouses and skirts” or dresses.

“Girls did not wear slacks,” Bernardon told TODAY of attending public school in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Bernardon recalled one situation where long pants were necessary: winter months living in upstate New York.

“I had a skirt in my locker in high school. I wore ski pants to school, because we walked, and when I got to school, I had to go to the ladies room right away and switch into a skirt,” she said. “And I had to reverse it to go home.”

Giovanna Bernardon poses for a school photo "around kindergarten or 1st grade."
Giovanna Bernardon poses for a school photo "around kindergarten or 1st grade."Courtesy Giovanna Bernardon

Bernardon's daughter, Theresa Grudzinski, 67, of Syracuse told TODAY Parents her biggest back-to-school memory was picking out an outfit for the first day.

“I remember going shopping with my grandmother and she would always pick out our school outfit and buy us our first day of school outfit, and I was always very excited about it,” Theresa Grudzinski said. “We always get our new shoes there too. It was a one stop shop.”

Theresa Grudzinski in fourth grade.
Theresa Grudzinski in fourth grade.Courtesy Theresa Grudzinski

Theresa walked to school. Her son, Mike Grudzinski, 39, also attended school in Syracuse and told TODAY Parents he was "definitely excited" to go back to school when summer was over and his favorite subjects were math and science.

"It was just what I found interesting and challenging," he shared.

Mike Grudzinski on his first day of kindergarten.
Mike Grudzinski on his first day of kindergarten.Courtesy Mike Grudzinski

While Mike told TODAY Parents he can't recall his exact emotions in his kindergarten photo, he remembers back-to-school photos.

"I (gave) the typical kid eye roll, because it was always like 'OK, we need a picture over here. We need to do this. We need to do that'," Mike Grudzinski explained. "And I was like, 'Can I just go now?'"

Mike is now a parent himself trying to capture back-to-school photos of his 6-year-old twin daughters, Harper and Amelia.

Harper and Amelia Grudzinki got a little silly for the camera in their 2021 back-to-school photos.
Harper and Amelia Grudzinki got a little silly for the camera in their 2021 back-to-school photos.Courtesy Mike Grudzinski

Harper told TODAY Parents she feels "kind of scared" to return to school in a few weeks.

"It's a whole different building and I don't really know around that building. It's much bigger," Harper said of starting second grade.

Sister Amelia said she feels excited.

"I can't wait to make new friends and meet my new teacher," Amelia said.

Though they are twins, the girls have differing opinions about outfits and favorite subjects. When it comes to back-to-school clothes, Harper told TODAY she prefers shorts over dresses, and Amelia likes the color pink.

Harper is looking forward to gym.

"I like because we get to do lots of different activities," Harper told TODAY.

Amelia is eager to get back to science.

"We get to do new things every day in science," Amelia said.

The girls will not be in the same classroom this year, which upsets Harper.

"Harper is very sad," Amelia told TODAY.

While their great-grandma and grandmother walked to school, and their dad "mostly" walked to school, the twins are charting a new path.

"We are riding the bus," Harper said.