On Tuesday, the night before the public schools opened, I went shopping for school supplies. Yes, it is true that the school supply lists had been on our bulletin board since June but somehow I never get around to shopping until I absolutely have to. I tried to palm the task off on my husband, but he did all the back-to-school shopping last year while I was on a raft trip, so he seemed to think it was my turn this year. Of course, I still think I should get massive credit for the fact that I took With-a-Why clothes shopping last week-- and even got him to try on pants -- a feat more formidable than anything I did on the white water rafting trip.
To be honest, I was impressed with myself that I went the night before, which in my book counts as ahead of time. I knew that I would end up going back to the store once the kids came home from school with new items to add to the list, which means the trip was a waste of time, but going the night before gave me that virtuous feeling that I am a good parent who does stuff ahead of time for my darling children. And even though I hate most kinds of shopping, I have to admit that I kind of like the office supplies store. Even though I now do most of my writing on a computer, I still get a thrill from seeing reams of blank paper, boxes of new pens, and stacks of clean new notebooks.
Tuesday night, many of the other parents in the store were clutching the same list that I had in my hand. I must looked like an expert on school supplies (how sad is that?), because many of them kept consulting me, rather than the teenagers in the red shirts who clearly worked in the store.
One woman, whose oldest son is the same age as my youngest, said to me nervously, "The list says he needs a red 2-inch binder."
She gave me a look of panic. "They are out of red binders!"
She was right. There were black binders, blue ones, and white ones, but no red ones left. I suspect the red ones were snatched up by the other hundreds of sixth grade parents who didn't wait until the last minute to buy supplies.
I shrugged. "Yeah, With-a-Why needs one too. I think I'll get the white one with the plastic sleeve and stick red construction paper in there."
She looked at me, aghast at my daring. "Would that be allowed?"
"I don't know," I said seriously. "Many a sixth grader has failed science because his binder wasn't red enough."
"Don't worry too much about getting everything on the list," I told her. "Hyper Son will come home with a whole different list tomorrow."
"What?" She looked at the list and back at me.
"Yep," I said. "The September list never exactly matches the one they give out in June. Some of it depends on which teachers they get."
She looked betrayed. "Really?"
"Then why do they give us the list?"
That's a good question. Why do schools bother to sent out these lists in June when everyone (except the new parents) knows darn well that the kids will come home with a different list on the first day of school?
Maybe it's just a tradition. I come from a community that is big on tradition. The words "We've always done it this way" are an accepted explanation for everything from asking English teachers to stick to a list of "classics" (that is, literature by anyone with pale skin and a penis) to scheduling parent/teacher conferences during the day when most parents are at work. There is seemingly no need to recognize that anything has changed since the 1950s.
Maybe it's to appease the nervous parents who call the school asking what their child needs. I mean, I was feeling all virtuous about buying supplies the night before, but many of the parents in the store acted like they felt guilty, as if somehow they should have bought paper and notebooks in June and let them season over the summer like firewood.
Maybe it's a racket thought up by the office supply store to get us to buy stuff our children won't ever use. I mean, think of all the families who now possess 2-inch red binders, which did not show up on the September list that our sixth graders brought home Wednesday.
Or maybe it's someone in the administration conducting a long-term scientific experiment. Come of to think of it, the parents scurrying all around the office supplies store did kind of remind me of rats in a maze.