School Supply Dealing


September 17, 2011

The kids have been back in school now for a few weeks and a sort of calm has descended across the household. The anticipation of the start of school always brings with it anxiety. What will I wear the first day of school? Who is in class with me? What kind of teachers will I have? And the big question: do I have all my school supplies? 

School supplies are like crack to my kids and cost almost as much.  And shopping for school supplies has become an epic event. I wonder how our grandparents learned with just a black slate and some chalk, maybe an abacus thrown in for good measure.  Today each school, grade, and teacher creates supply lists that are handed down like pronouncements from heaven. And my children who have a great moral compass of doing what they are told by other people (not by us) make sure they follow that list to the letter – and then some.

And every year the list is different. Why do they need a clip board in 3rd grade but not in 4th grade? What were the steno pads for in 5th grade? Some teachers like composition books, others spiral notebooks, still others call for looseleaf binders. My favorite teachers are the ones who like graph paper with boxes of a certain size. 

Since moving here we have shopped for supplies in the Staples in Victor, N.Y. There is a lady there who knows all the school supply lists by heart and where you can find everything on the shelf.   She is a wealth of information and helps us to navigate the crazy world of erase boards and Franklin Spellers. In order to save money, I’ve tried shopping at other big box retailers and somehow I make my way back to the back of Staples to find my friend in the red polo shirt. I’ve convinced myself she actually saves us money because we end up buying the right folder with clips and pockets instead of the pretty one my daughter wants. She’s like a school supply tour guide helping us traverse the madness with the proper compass (the one with the point).   But at check-out, I really believe she’s been our tour guide in hell. 

And it isn’t just shopping for the school supplies, organizing them is a serious ritual as well. After we get the mounds of bags home, my husband, the uber-organizer in the family takes out the sacred labeler and the ceremonial labeling begins.  My daughter actually labels each No. 2 pencil with her initials.  About two weeks into the school year my daughter won’t have enough pencils (despite the labeling), the crayons will all have broken, and my son’s back-pack will be filled with blank-crumpled up pieces of that hard-to-find graph paper with the certain-sized boxes.

This year the school supply search was different.  My son said, “Mom, there are no lists in High School, we’ll figure it out after I start.” My daughter was more interested in locker décor supplies (when did this become a necessity?) than in glue sticks and colored pencils. I actually pouted a little, asked my son if he didn’t want just one notebook? Maybe some mechanical pencils?  And I shut down my daughter and told her I wasn’t financing her extreme locker make-over.     

We ended up making the trip mostly for nostalgia. I pre-scolded my children not to put extra things in the cart that we don’t need. Except this year I found myself throwing in the extra sharpies, index cards, and shiny folders, secretly lamenting the fact that my school supply days are numbered.  It was in that moment, I realized the ritual of buying the supplies, isn’t about the supplies at all…but the kids who use them. 

As first published in the Democrat + Chronicle and on the USA Today Network