This Year: $488 on School Supplies. Next Year Will Be Different.


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Credit KJ Dell’Antonia

It started with my soon-to-be sixth grader, Lily.

“We need,” she declared, “to go buy school supplies.” Her plan: an all hands on deck visit to big-box-home-office heaven with her brothers, Sam, 14, and Wyatt, 9, and her sister, Rory, also 9.

“I hate buying school supplies,” I told her. “I hate it, it’s awful, we go in with what looks like a short list and we leave $500 later with six pencil pouches shaped like kittens and then a week after school starts you all come home and tell me that we didn’t get any of the right things, not any of them.”

“It won’t be like last year,” she said. “Not at all. I know exactly what I need. I have a list.”

“And then Rory starts crying because you are getting a bigger box of pencils than she is and then you get upset when I tell her she can have more pencils and then Wyatt falls off the cart into the locker chandelier display.”

“It won’t be like last year,” she said. “Not at all. I have their lists, too.”

“And then while I’m searching for the exact kind of protractor Sam needs, Rory puts 17 packs of Post-Its in the cart because they’re so cute and then when we go to check out I have to put them all back along with the jumbo bag of Jolly Ranchers.”

“You can take us to dinner after and not cook,” Lily suggested. “And you can just look at the pens and the calendars and I will get all their stuff.” As a final inducement she mentioned the soda machine at Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which has Mr. Pibb.

I said no again, because I cannot be swayed by Mr. Pibb even though you can’t get it anywhere anymore, and then four of us got in the car. At the store, Lily carefully selected her school supplies. Rory brought me, first, a box of several thousand crayons; second, a teeny tiny notebook with a single rhinestone on its cover, like a little stationery bindi; third, a large box containing elaborate plastic stencils for coloring and a frame to put them in; fourth, a small package containing a dry erase board, marker and eraser, all outlined in purple plastic, identical to one she has at home and fifth, a jumbo bag of Jolly Ranchers.

To all of these but the third and fifth I said, “That’s lovely, and if you want it to be your one thing we buy that isn’t on the list you can put it in the cart.” To the third I said, no way, we are not buying that, because I knew she would use it once, then lose the one clip that held the whole thing together and then make me spend a solid week looking for the clip, which would turn up months later, days after we’d thrown the rest of the kit away, in the pocket of the basket I use to go to the farmer’s market.

To the Jolly Ranchers I simply said no, and she said, “Why, why, why, but I want them, I will use my own money, why, why can’t I buy them?” This I ignored, because we have talked before about all the places I find Jolly Rancher wrappers where no Jolly Rancher should ever have been, ever.

With two exceptions, Lily selected Rory’s school supplies, the exceptions being her pencil box (pink, with raised cupcakes) and her box of pencils, because the one Lily selected was smaller than the one she herself was getting and Rory objected. I said, “Fine, you can have more pencils,” and Lily got upset, because she is older and needs more pencils. Right about then Wyatt, who had grabbed everything he needed in 30 seconds and was now dangling off the back of the cart chanting, “This is so boring,” fell into the Crayola display.

Sam, who refused to come, said that he did not need any school supplies except a chemical he described as “Muskoggee-Squidgy No. 4-0-0-6-92” for his orchid hydroponics project. So I bought him two binders, two pencil pouches, a box each of pens, pencils and red pencils, two plain spiral notebooks, one spiral notebook labeled “Plans for World Domination” and some loose-leaf paper.

We spent $488.33, an amount that included the iPod charger my younger son selected as his “one thing” and the dry erase board, but not the Jolly Ranchers, and locker shelves but not the gold-plated locker chandelier the total might suggest, and binders, notebooks, packages of loose-leaf paper, pencils, pencil pouches, pencil boxes, protractors, compasses, dividers and glue sticks for everyone.

I posted the total on Facebook, knowing that I would not be alone in either exorbitant expenditure or the horror that is checking out at the big box store with three children who want their items to go into their own bag but have in some cases purchased the same items and are arguing over whose package of loose-leaf notebook paper is whose.

Amid the life-affirming Facebook empathy, my best friend noted that she had her children go through last year’s school supplies and all the unused things at home before going out to kill the planet and waste money.

I thought that was uncalled for and considered bringing up the blue eye shadow she wore daily in high school, but instead I refused to like her comment, although two other people I don’t like anymore did. While I did this my three younger children sat at the kitchen table in a frenzy, removing price tags and adding name stickers and setting up binders filled with loose-leaf paper and preparing pencil boxes and sharpening pencils to perfection with an enthusiasm for going back to school that they had never shown before, and have not shown since.

The next day, my mother arrived to help me move my two daughters out of the room they have shared with their brothers into their own room, and not incidentally to help me clean and organize the parts of the house the children have taken over. This needed to be done before school starts and my older daughter begins bringing home and losing copies of the books her older brother brought home three years ago while my younger son and daughter begin bringing home and losing copies of the books their older brother and sister brought home four and two years ago, respectively. “Look,” I said to my mother before we started, “they’re all ready to go back to school. They have all their supplies, each in a bag in their cubbies.”

I thought her appreciation was a little perfunctory, and reminiscent of how I’d responded to my younger daughter’s sixth drawing of a horse earlier that day, but I didn’t say anything, since I didn’t want to clean alone. Operating somewhat vaguely under the Marie Kondo principle of “bring everything in a category out and put it on the floor before doing anything else” (our category, unmentioned in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” for an excellent reason, being “things that belong to children”), we emptied their room, the playroom (soon to be the girls’ room) and several other spaces around the house.

After a very few minutes of this my mother said, “Here are some pencils.” And shortly after that, “Here are some binders,” and then not too much later, “Here are some pencil boxes and here is a protractor and here is a compass, unopened, and here are some dividers.” By the time she opened the drawer that proved to contain many, many packages of loose-leaf paper, she did not say anything at all.

We did not find any glue sticks.

I have thought this over, and next year, sometime in August, I am going to order a case of Mr. Pibb and then I am going to put my car keys in the bag my husband takes to work before he leaves, and it won’t be like this year, not at all.



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