Gabrielle hopped into the car after school the other day and handed me a sheet of paper.

“Our class is putting together a UK basket this year,” she announced, pushing up her glasses and turning to me. “In other words, I need to bring some loot.”

I looked at the sheet and immediately realized it was that time of year again: fall festival season, one of the richest school traditions across the region.

I was first introduced to this concept when Gabrielle, my stepdaughter, entered kindergarten. I expected a little party, possibly a parade and Gabrielle coming home with a few Tootsie Rolls stuffed in her pocket.

Boy, was I in for a shock.

I first realized I had underestimated the event when we approached the parking lot and saw a cotton candy machine, a funnel cake booth and a steaming cauldron of kettle corn set up at the entrance. Each was flanked by giant inflatables conveying everything from castles to caterpillars. Kids were flying around in complete ecstasy, high on sugar, holding long ribbons of tickets and running, yes, in two directions at once.

Upon entering the school, I realized that each classroom featured a carnival game: ring toss, beanbag toss, Plinko, duck pond, ball throw. As the kids poured in, the teachers were in charge of harnessing the energy that whirled like a tornado overhead.

My favorite game was the cakewalk, which I had also never witnessed before. Finally, I was able to understand the expression as I watched kids cautiously walking around in a circle and angling for a chair when the music stopped. And the cakes themselves were utterly gorgeous: homemade, thick with icing, baked with love.

Quickly, my husband and I deduced that finding Gabrielle, who had come with her mom, would be a near impossibility. Not only were the classrooms full, the hallways, usually so quiet and orderly, had become as busy as subway platforms, with parents, overwhelmed, standing like Flat Stanleys against the wall.

We made our way to the gym and were introduced to a whole other world of the festival: the silent auction. I strolled the aisles amazed at the collection of donations. Basket upon cellophane-wrapped basket was filled to the point of overflowing and each had a theme: camping, barbecue, coffee lover, tea lover, chocolate lover, craft lover, movie theme, scrapbooking, tail gaiting. One corner of the gym had been transformed into a girl’s bedroom, complete with bed, nightstand, lamp, rug, bookcase and nightlight.

Judging from the long lists of bids, I knew the auction had already gotten aggressive despite its silence, and I was immediately bitten by the fall festival bug. I suddenly wanted to spend money, all kinds of money, and I didn’t even care what it was on. I desperately, randomly made a $100 bid on a set of UK corn hole boards, though I don’t like corn hole, I have only a casual allegiance to UK and they were probably worth $25.

We continued our search, looking around anxiously for Gabrielle but seeing nothing, like when you’re looking for a golf ball in the rough. Finally, we saw her, her hair laced with cotton candy, her wrists heavy with plastic bracelets she’d won, her skin coated in tattoos, a belt of tickets wrapped twice around her waist. She was drowsy but in heaven. She was 5 and adorable and wanted to be picked up.

Last year, Gabrielle’s school upped the fall festival ante when it auctioned off a parking spot, which is reserved every day from 3 to 3:15 so the winning parent doesn’t have to wait in the school pickup line. Let me tell you, that was one popular item and one I badly wanted to win.

You can bet I’ll have my eye on that prize Friday when we head to the school and resume our search for our best girl. She’ll be much older now, wiser, less impressed, but I’m hoping the fall festival bug will bite her still and we’ll find her sticky with candy, swinging a bag of prizes and happy as can be.

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