This year, all those yellow school buses hitting the streets bring with them a very special case of the blues.
That's because those buses, hallmarks of new years and fresh beginnings, are a poor substitute for the blue "Battle Bus," that vehicle of beeping anticipation that delivers eager sharpshooters to the field of war in the supremely popular video game "Fortnite."
For those uninitiated, or those not not living with greasy-haired tweens (or their older, dorm-dwelling counterparts), "Fortnite" is the paradigm-busting sensation of the summer that has turned a broad swath of America's youth into cold, tactical digital killers, while also teaching them some pretty sweet dance moves. (Hey, look, it's The Carlton!)
Here's the skinny: Players connected online travel via "Battle Bus" to a colorfully populated island, where up to 100 at a time duke it out "Hunger Games"-style for ultimate supremacy -- something normally achieved by hiding in bushes, randomly emoting, and using enough ammunition to force an armed government standoff in the real world. A storm, with clockwork precision no meteorologist worth his salt could miss, constantly shrinks the playable area.
What otherwise would be just a school shooter training simulation is softened significantly by a cartoonish aesthetic, absolutely no blood and, of course, the aforementioned sick dance moves.
Many kids this summer took the time to read zero books, and they only passively encountered the sun, but they now can make a scope-less sniper shot from 1,500 meters while also doing a perfect Napoleon Dynamite routine.
The game has turned many children into engaged team players and, at the same time, bile-spewing rage monsters -- and the impact has been felt far and wide.
The game, while free to download and play, has nonetheless generated about $1 billion in revenue by selling players digital jackets, shoes and hats that, despite looking totally bomb, deliver absolutely no advantage within the game.
Part of the reason for the explosive popularity of "Fortnite" has been that, somewhat surprisingly, it is the first game to make full use of cross-platform play -- meaning people playing the game on any number of different platforms and devices can enjoy the mayhem together. (Except for Sony's PlayStation 4, whose stubbornness forces its players to only play among themselves. Get with the program, Sony!)
Because of this, I've been able to use my phone to blithely drop in on matches with my boys.
There, they have watched me serve alternately as strategic genius and noob-ish human shield.
Parents have largely turned a blind eye to the violence because, honestly, it's all super cute and light. But "Fortnite" malaise certainly has set in.
"You know that sound the internet made when connecting in the 90's?" one tweeted. "That's exactly what my kids sound like when they tell me about Fortnite."
So goes another painfully familiar refrain: "I'd say about 98% -- no, make that 99% -- of the conversations my kids have initiated with me this summer have been about Fortnite," another Twitter user complained.
One couple even went viral on YouTube with their song heralding the end of summer and "Fortnite" -- until, it turns out, the dad gets addicted himself.
For those who can relate, know that it hasn't all been fights and flossing in the outfield, and rest assured there is credible academic work that debunks connections between violence in the video game and real worlds.
It's even been suggested that the game's digital lobby has provided children with another much-needed, safe gathering place where they can talk and mingle without constantly prying adult interference.
As shallow as it is, "Fortnite" even may be an inartful, but necessary step toward the virtual-reality wonderland so many books and movies have promised us.
Perhaps this is some part of the future, shrewdly packaged and colorfully rendered for the present.
But guess what? The future isn't now -- or at least not until next summer.
So for the moment, join me in watching the kiddos trade their "kills," "skins" and "emotes" for the more traditional pencils, books and dirty looks.
And, unless I'm too much mistaken, I hear a school bus coming, too. If any of you also feel like dancing, now would be the time.