September 07, 2006

Paper clips for Algernon

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."

She laughed.

"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?"

"Yep."

"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.

34 comments:

Songbird said...

The Princess asked me if she didn't need a Trapper-Keeper, and I pointed out that some years I've heard they're required and other years I've heard they're banned. I recommended that we wait and see what list came home on the first day of school. And as it turns out, they still don't have a list. I expect we'll get it tomorrow.

Beth said...

I blieve you're right; the administration is conducting a scientific experiment on you maze-trapped parents.

listmaker said...

I could certainly open my own school supply store. When cleaning out in anticipation of moving I amassed all the school supplies lurking in all corners of the house. I now have a shoebox full of colored pencils, one of regular pencils and pens. Need a red binder (or any other color)? I've got them. So, what did I do last night? Went to the school supply store. In my fit of organization, I shipped all the school supplies to the new house instead of leaving them here where RT might have been able to assemble everything on his list from what we already had.

luolin said...

I didn't know the lists were traditional. I don't remember getting anything like that before school started when I was a kid, so I thought it was some new-fangled practice. Maybe the practice has slowly been working its way westward.

RLT said...

It wasn't tradition in the south, either, I don't think. At least, not when my kids were in school. Although I wouldn't have minded. I don't like mall shopping, but office supplies are my favorites...followed by hardware and drug stores.

Suzanne said...

Ah, the clarion call of the office supply store. Nothing makes me want to get organized like all those supplies. I am actually looking forward to having schoolage kids so that I have a reason to shop there (since I never actually get organized enough to buy the stuff to become organized...).

jo(e) said...

Songbird: Every year for as long as I can remember, the class supply list has said in big letters: NO TRAPPER KEEPERS. It always makes me wonder why the stores still carry them. How does that company stay in business? Maybe it's the forbidden fruit thing, and the ban just makes kids want to sneak out and buy them?

luolin: The class supply lists could be just a local tradition for all I know. I've lived in the same school district my whole life.

halloweenlover said...

Banned trapper keepers? Why?

Sounds like fun! I miss school shopping about school, is that a little sick?

jo(e) said...

Halloweenlover: I have no idea what caused the ban. All I know is that trapper keepers are evil. That's what the lists tell me. I try to walk on the other side of the aisle when I see them in the store.

Shelly said...

Maybe it's the fault of the SP guys. They had that crazy evil trapper keeper show early on. Or maybe they were spoofing on the ban!

Chip said...

I think it's just a rite of passage. I mean, what's the start of school without all those school supplies, even if you don't end up using them. My son did buy a trapper keeper, I think they're allowed this year, though they were forbidden in elementary school.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

jo(e), you have made me feel better. I did no shopping for my kid -- in fact, he didn't even have a backpack. His snack was in his shirt pocket.

On my son's first day of preschool I learned that he needs his own waterbottle and his own slippers. Slippers! Is this Russia?

cloudscome said...

The night before Buster got on the plane for college he brought down a plastic shoe box FULL of pencils. Some we had bought when he was in 7th grade I think. This is the first year in a really long time that I didn't buy any school supplies. It was both happy and sad!

The Trapper Keeper problem for us was they don't fit in the desks. Too big.

wolfa said...

I remember in elementary school we were told what colour Hilroys to have for each class, and it was impossible to ever get just those colours together (they come in packs of 4), so you'd have this graveyard of spare yellow ones or something. Because the teachers refused to coordinate, I guess.

I always always wanted a Trapper Keeper and never had one. I'd buy one now, but I don't need it.

I was so excited in high school to finally be allowed to choose my own supplies and colours. Did I prefer notes in notebooks or on looseleaf? I could choose! Did I think history should be blue and math red or vice versa? My decision! My sister is not given this option.

Sarah Sometimes said...

okay folks what is a TRAPPER KEEPER??? This Brooklyn kid never heard of such a thing.

I don't have kids, but this season does always make me feel vaguely reminiscent about the excitement of the first day of school and buying those supplies. Also, going shopping for back-to-school clothes was fun.

btw, this post is very funny.

Marie said...

I hope parents wait until their kids come home from the first couple of days to buy stuff, at least for high school. And I try really hard not to make it difficult. And I buy extras for kids with financial problems and make it known that anyone can some see me "on the sly" if they need to and "I'll take care of you." And I LOVE shopping for my own supplies every year. I'm such a nerd!

Linda (FM) said...

From the number of unused office/school supplies I found when I packed to move it's clear I don't need to set foot in an office supply store for a long time. But I know I won't be able to resist the allure of new pens and fresh, unused notebooks.

landismom said...

I love the office supply store. I don't care how many lists they send home, I will always walk out of that place with more than I went in to get. Love your solution to the red binder problem.

Yankee, Transferred said...

Big Box Office Supply Store here had a deal where you got 15 percent off everything you could fit in a paper grocery bag. It was the last week of July. It certainly stimulated the school-supply buying in this city. No need to wait til the last minute, and it gave the store time to re-stock for the late-comers. Quite inventive.

elswhere said...

Well, we didn't *get* a supply list for MG until the day before school started; I'd even talked to the school secretary a couple of weeks earlier to ask for one, and been refused!

Which meant that every first grade parent at Smartypants Yuppie School was at the office supply store on Tuesday night, searching in vain for big pencils and, mysteriously, an oversized white T-shirt that was somehow supposed to be prewashed.

RW was sure we had to send in the T-shirt on the first day because what if there was some big first-day project involving tie-dying or something?

There is just no avoiding the craziness of last-minute school-supply shopping, apparently.

Mona Buonanotte said...

Big Chain Stores around here have unbelievable sales on school supplies in mid-July, but the teachers NEVER send out their lists until late August, if at all. So we can't get those sexy 15-cent boxes of 64 crayons or 10-packs-of-notebooks for $1.

Many of us parents buy this stuff just because it's on sale and then end up not needing them.

Big scam, if you ask me. Still, I love having spare office supplies around....

Mrs. Coulter said...

The school supply list seems so weird. We never got lists when I was in school, either Catholic elementary or public high. I remember going to Ames (no office superstores in the North Country back when) and going through the school supply aisle picking out folders and notebooks and loose leaf and pens and pencils and pencil carriers and, yes, Trapper Keepers. Some of it never really got used, but it was always *my* judgment. On the other hand, if it weren't for these lists, some kids would probably come to school prepared with nothing (a state which does *not* necessarily correlate to their economic privilege, as far as my experience goes).

What really boggles my mind, though, when I see today's lists, is that kids are expected to bring things like boxes of Kleenex to supply the classroom. Will kids be asked to stock the bathrooms with toilet paper next? I suppose if the school has to choose between buying paper for the photocopier and Kleenex, I would prefer paper for the photocopier, but there's still something deeply wrong with our system when that choice has to be made.

zelda1 said...

Does that bring back memories. I always over bought and my children would have supplies they never used. There is something about a store filled with paper and pencils and crayons that makes me extremely happy. I will buying school supplies when I'm eighty.

ccw said...

Kid L's school had the generic list and the more specific one out early. Even with both lists there were still supplies to buy after school started.

Kid L needed an accordion file and Trapper Keepers are not allowed. I wonder what would happen if a child had a Trapper Keeper?

Jody said...

Wait -- do they even still SELL trapper keepers? Do we have evidence that these lists haven't changed since the 1980s? Or just that I haven't been looking that closely at the shelves, and missed another retro revival?

I can't think of anything else to say except that this gave me a great chuckle. Thanks.

Sara said...

I am fascinated to hear that TrapperKeepers are banned in some districts. Some secret part of me is cheering, I must admit. Because in my elementary school in the early 80s, TrapperKeepers drew the class lines. They were the coolest: everybody wanted one, but alas, that could not be.

Maybe the economics have changed, maybe they can no longer command a premium since their popularity has waned, but back in the day, TrapperKeepers were seriously expensive.

Maybe there is an epidemic of sour grapes (like mine) amongst school administrators old enough to remember the hardship of not having a TrapperKeeper.

iBeth said...

I used to LOVE trapperkeepers, a fact that probably dates me. tho my age is obvious enough.

Anyway, I hate these never-accurate supply lists. And no matter what is put on the dang list, there is ALWAYS a homework assignment early in the year that requires some kind of item that we don't keep in the house and was not on the list, e.g., posterboard, and we have to rush out at an inconvenient time to buy it. Yuk.

Also, in our part of the country, some schools are including supplies like "toilet paper" on their lists. Can we not just raise the freakin' tax rate so schools can buy such items out of their own budgets?

*sigh* I am so cranky already, and my oldest child is only in first grade. :(

YourFireAnt said...

jo(e), I don't know what Trapper Keepers are, but I do know what toilet paper is. I think I went to school somewhere in between.

We didn't have lists of supplies. Our nuns got them, and then sent home a bill to the parents for the things we needed. Usually a big fat red #1 pencil, some paper, books (usually second-hand), and the cost of fountain pens/ink as well as, every now and then, a fairly basic musical instrument. All this depended on what nun you got, and what her talents and particular interests were. Most of the "art supplies" we used in the classes where we did art were donated. The best thing the nuns taught me in the 12 years I studied them/with them was how to get people (usually merchants in downtown businesses, a few blocks from our school) to donate things to our school.

You know, back in the "olden days". ;-)

Rana said...

Maybe the lists are so that parents can budget for the items, instead of paying for them all at once? (That's the only reason I can think of to distribute them 3 months early. But, then, that's undermined by not having the list be the "real" one.)

I don't recall that we ever had official lists when I was in school (California and Colorado, 1970s and 1980s). We did always end up buying pencils, pens, erasers, and notebooks, but that was because they were useful and if you didn't have them, you couldn't do the work in school. The one "rule" I remember was that, at some point in high school, we weren't allowed to do our work in pencil. This caused huge amounts of consternation among the students, until they invented those erasable ink pens. (Which, though they didn't erase very well and tended to smear, smelled wonderful.)

I don't remember getting anything from the school except the loaner textbooks, which we always covered in brown paper and drew all over. Most of us either had binders (I guess they were Trapper Keepers but I don't remember them as such or pee-chees (which were at least as popular) to hold our note paper and pencils and assignments.

Our big zone of competition was lunch boxes. Cool kids had square plastic ones with popular cartoon characters on them. Somehow I ended up with one of those black metal ones (the kind that construction workers stereotypically eat out of) and decorated it with stickers.

Jessica said...

I found you via Bumblebee Sweet Potato and love this post! (BTW, I too love blank paper and brand new writing supplies - I thought I was the only one).

Our school doesn't give a new list in September but they don't always use everything on the list, which is annoying. We weren't required to provide binders of a specific color but we were required to provide green pens. Why green? I have no idea. And guess what? You can't buy green pens by themselves - you have to buy multi-color packages in order to get the precious green ones. (Unless you cheat and ask your company's supplies dude to get you a couple packages of green pens because you're sick of red and blue and then you sneak a few pens home in your briefcase).

kathya said...

this is a fabulous thread! my baby is a senior in HS and we don't sweat the lists anymore. i keep running across stashes of unused goods from former years, and we must have 83,000 partly used colored pencils, not to mention the other leftovers...

RussianViolets said...

I love the "many a kid has failed science because his binder was not red enough." Just awesome, jo(e). :-)

Sarah Sometimes said...

Thank you, thank you, Rana, for posting the link to the Wikipedia entry for Trapper Keepers. I was getting more and more mystified. Since I graduated from high school in 1974, well before the dates given as the epoch of the Trapper Keeper and have no kids, I guess it makes sense that I have no idea what they are. And I have to admit, I am still mystified.... I get the velcro closure and the pockets and all of that, but what are the "sliding plastic rings"??? Can't quite picture that....

Silver Creek Mom said...

I always liked to go school supply shopping. I mean I loved looking at all the pencils and the cool binders and Paper.

I guess I'm like that commercial where the parents are running down the isles of a buisness suppply store singing "It's the most wonderful time of the year." BUT Not becasue the kids are going back becasue I love to SHOP for that stuff. I love new pencils!