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In Short Supply

Isn’t it always the way? I wrote this churlish essay five years ago. Now that my services are no longer required for procuring school supplies, I kind of miss the annual ritual.


In Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott writes with great wit and humor about turning into a “menopause death crone” at age 49, my age exactly. She describes the descent: from likeable and lighthearted person into harridan hell.

I, too, have made the horrible morph into MDC. Right now, one of the chief reasons for feeling and acting like a death crone: school supplies. At 49, I have a son about to enter 6th grade. OK, I practically gave birth in the geriatric ward, but that’s another story.

The one-page, single-space list intones that every 6th grade student must have four binders, one each for Math, Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts, each with a set of 5-tab index dividers for notes, lab work, corrected papers, homework, tests, and quizzes. The size of the binder is specified, and whether it is to be hard or flexible.

There must also be four composition books: Religion, English, Reading Journal, and Literature. My head starts to spin: how do these kids keep track of when to use the Language Arts binder vs. the English composition book?

Also compulsory: broad markers, thin markers, colored pencils, crayons, a dozen red pens, the brand of which is specified. Is the teacher anticipating a flood of mistakes? Does he own shares in the red pen company?  And why in the world would my kid be coloring in 6th grade? But this is not all: glue and glue sticks, mechanical and woodcase pencils, tissues, a scientific calculator, scissors, blue pens, paper, pencil box, sharpener.

I hear myself snarling at my son, crone-style, to go in his room and find his old sets of crayons and markers. At Staples, I rifle through stacks of binders feeling vaguely homicidal because there are no more 1-1/2-inch binders, the required size, and I can’t face the prospect of elbowing my way through the crowds in Target or Wal-Mart. Shopping on Christmas Eve?  A lark compared to this.

My son looks somberly at the box of pencils when we get home and dump the supplies on the dining room table to try to sort, label, and organize it all. I have bought Medium pencils, 2 and 5/10, not #2, the mandatory type. They’ll have to do, I say crisply, momentarily pleased with myself for not screaming that a bloody pencil is a bloody pencil.

What’s behind this gluttony for supplies?  Whose idea was it and why do parents go along with it passively? Has anyone considered the environmental impact of hundreds of thousands of spent plastic pens and empty glue sticks in the landfill? And, if we’re supposedly grooming children for success, I defy anyone to identify a single CEO who bumbles around with four binders, four composition books, and a dozen red pens. Despite all this stuff, our kids don’t appear to be getting any smarter, as recently plummeting SAT scores indicate.

My surliness about the school supply list is really nostalgia for my own school days and now-distant youth: the single binder, bound in blue denim with a section for Math, Science, Social Studies, and English. A sheaf of notebook paper. That was it. Any old pencil or pen would do. Less to keep track of.

My son will lug two huge shopping bags full of supplies to school on the first day. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem nearly as weighed down by them as I do. Still, I wish he could march off to 6th grade with a single binder tucked under his arm — no shopping bags, no backpack, and certainly no rolling suitcase like some students lumber along with.

There’s hope, though. Unencumbered school days might make a comeback — we’ll see a legion of kids toting only a single blue binder. And if that can happen, I just might change back into the nice person I used to be.

September 2006

About treacycolbert

I make my living by writing about health care. I've always written about life's chastening effect, but just as a way of sorting it out for myself. After years of doing this and keeping these essays quiet, I decided to put some of these impressions out there on this blog. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think.

4 responses »

  1. Don’t these kids have LAPTOPS? Why do they even need any of these supplies?

    A sister Menopause Death Crone

  2. Funny Treacy! I, actually, also remember the annual pilgrimage to the mall and school supply stores with fondness. And as how the children got older, the feeling of the trip would change. Much more anxiety entered into it as the need to fit in became stronger . . . maybe it was also changes in me that added to it. Who knows? But our school days were definitely simpler.

    • Linda, I seem to recall that you had one of those blue binders! Your comment about fitting in reminded me of one back-to-school season when I tried to convince Christopher that recycling a giant Altoids tin would be a great idea for a pencil case, rather than buying a cheap plastic one, better for the environment, yak yak yak. He was about 8, I think. He listened quite patiently and then submitted, “Mom, I just want to be like everybody else.” We bought the plastic case.


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