School Supply Insanity: Just Do It Or Just Say No?

In 2005, many first-days-of school ago, I watched my 7-year old son walk into his kindergarten class with tears stinging my eyes. I felt stuck in place, unable to leave, and was surprised to see another kindergarten mother walking quite snappily back to her car. It struck me as somewhat unseemly, her sprightly air. The kindergarten teacher, a wise and, I would come to learn, hilarious woman, looked at my weepy-mommy face and winked. “This isn’t her first rodeo,” she said, smiling.

Now, eight years later, with two sons in high school and one starting 1st grade, this impending school year is no longer my first rodeo. Which is why there are no traces of sentimentality left around one of the critical steps in gearing up for 1st grade: the School Supply List.

Long gone are the days when school supplies held the air of freshly sharpened pencils and sheaves of blank, potential-filled paper. Long vanished is the fantasy of cheerfully picking out pencil cases, notebooks, and new crayons with my sons. And good riddance.

I remember the first year of buying school supplies, navigating my cart and my sons through Target, scouring the seasonally-constructed displays of folders, glue sticks, binders, markers, pens, pencils and erasers with The List clutched in my hand. The List is like a slightly hostile treasure map–overly detailed and emphatically punctuated with descriptions of what was required (“1 10-pack of Crayola Classic Markers, wide tip—NO thin markers”).

I argued with my boys about whether Spiderman or Batman folders were acceptable (“5 2-pocket folders, plastic coated with pockets at the bottom NOT the sides. Assorted colors.”); I shoved huge, unwieldy shrink-wrapped 6-pack Kleenex boxes onto the bottom of the cart, ran up a monstrous bill, and finally wheeled my cart through the sliding doors into the parking lot, feeling like I had navigated a very anal and very stressful obstacle course.

At the end of the obstacle course is the shining, desperate, hope that you have earned your status as A Parent Who Follows Instructions. A Parent Who Provides for Your Child.

I am happy to be a parent who provides for my children. Up to a point. That point was reached last week when I received The School Supply List for Gabriel’s 1st grade class. There are 20 items on The List, but I only know this because I counted them before writing this post. For a full week, I could not get past the first item. I started reading The List, and had to put it down on the counter and walk away.

When I picked it up again, there it was, just as before. And just as insane. The first item: “12—SHARPENED #2 Ticonderoga brand pencils (to be replaced monthly). Child’s name should be written on each pencil in permanent marker.”

Sharpened pencils are a good idea; providing enough supplies to the larger pool is also a good idea. Keeping track of who brings what seems like good management. But requiring parents to write their child’s name on individual pencils? As a colleague said, “You have just run into the difference between theory and practice.”

My first instinct, despite an underlying sense of absurdity, was to act like a mother wanting to provide what my son will need, so I consulted to investigate personalized pencils. Luckily the sense of absurdity became strong enough to short-circuit whatever compulsion led me to view The List as a manifesto of What Good Parents Do, and I decided that the 5 minutes I had spent on was 5 minutes too long.

What, I wondered, was the thinking underlying the request for parents to write their child’s name in permanent marker on every single pencil? That there are not enough pencils to go around? This is a solvable problem. A school year’s supply of #2 Ticonderoga pencils=108 pencils. 108 pencils x 20 (the approximate number of children in Gabe’s class) is 2160 pencils. At, one can purchase 72 #2 Ticonderoga pencils for $12.99. A full-year supply of pencils for every single student would therefore cost $389.70 plus tax.

Given that children who can barely write yet are not likely to require 108 pencils over the course of one school year, and given the fact that pencils are HIGHLY REUSABLE writing implements, we could safely cut that number in half and say that 50 pencils per child per year would be plenty. So, 50 pencils for 20 children for the entirety of 1st grade=1000 pencils. Therefore, the cost of supplying an abundance of pencils for Gabe’s entire class would cost $180.41. If I threw in either one pencil sharpener per child for a total of an extra $23.95, or purchased a communal classroom pencil sharpener for $18.78, the totally cost would be closer to ~$204.00.

I asked several friends and family members for their thoughts on this issue, and received a variety of possible solutions. For example:

From a colleague: “Change your child’s name to Ticonderoga. Or, if you do not want to go to the trouble to do an official name change you could just tell the teacher, “We thought nicknames would be OK, at home we always call him No. 2.”

From my friend who works at a social service agency: duct tape a pencil to Gabe’s wrist every morning so as to assure both him and the teacher that he will never be without a pencil and that he will only ever use a pencil that belongs to him; possibly duct tape 5 pencils to his wrist every Monday morning so as to save time.

From my aunt who was a special-ed teacher/administrator for many years: tell the teacher that Gabe has poor small-motor skills and therefore an IEP allowing him to use pencil grips (those little rubber things you put on pencils to make them more comfortable to hold), so we will be sending a different pencil grip for each day of the week, color-coded, and confirming that this enough to identify the pencils as officially belonging to him.

From my son Jacob: purchase one gigantic novelty pencil, get Gabe’s name printed on it, and explain to Gabe that he has to make it last until he goes to high school.

I also consulted my mother, a retired elementary school teacher, mostly to ask if this was indeed a preposterous request. At first she agreed that it was, but then quickly defaulted into teacher mode, and proceeded to outline the following process: I should type Gabe’s name into a Word document, cut and paste it 108 times, cut out each name with tiny scissors, thereby creating a “label” which I can then center on a piece of tape, then wrap the “label” around the pencil, “at the top underneath that metal part where the eraser goes.” “Do you hear yourself?” I asked. “He can help you!” she said enthusiastically.

When I told her that under no circumstances would I be taping/engraving/stenciling/labeling/marking Gabe’s pencils with his name, she said, “So he’s going to be the only kid there with no pencils with his name on them?” “Well, that would make it clear which ones were his, wouldn’t it?” I replied.

There are cool websites like that provide personalized labels for things that kids often lose, which makes complete sense—backpacks, sweatshirts, even pencil cases. There, however, are also mothers, like the ones my sister-in-law Eileen described to me this spring around Field Day who think it’s a super great idea to run around balancing giant metal trays of Dixie cups filled with ice cold water so that their offspring won’t get too thirsty. Passing out from heat exhaustion—not good. Getting thirsty and having to drink out of a water fountain or perhaps a warm juice box? That sounds just fine to me.

The new incarnation of what used to be known as “helicopter parents” is “curling parents,” which is a reference to the sport of curling. In curling, some team members sweep the ice ahead of the curling stone to brush all of the impediments and rough spots out of the way so as to ensure a smooth, obstacle-free glide for the stone.

Much as I would like to save my sons from bad things happening to them, I do not wish to save them from inconvenience, discomfort, having to make do, or being responsible for keeping track of the stuff they’re given.

Each tiny parental step onto the rink–a personalized pencil here, a Dixie cup of cold water there–and soon you are sliding non-stop along the ice, filling out job applications and/or calling your child’s college office to complain that your son’s schedule doesn’t allow him enough time to get his laundry done. (Trust me on this one. I’ve been there).

My mother is insisting that she will send Gabe a pack of personalized pencils, “at least to get him started off with, and at least so you don’t piss the teacher off on the first day.” I’m not really concerned about that. I respect teachers immensely, almost as much as daycare providers who are among the most patient, tolerant, creative, hardest-working people I’ve ever come across.

The wise kindergarten teacher from 7 years ago told me that her goal for children’s first school experience was for them to feel that they each had “a place at the table.” So while I am a little concerned that Gabe might feel like he doesn’t have something the other kids have, I’m not too concerned. He has all “the stuff” that matters and then some.

And for better or worse, he also has me. I won’t be watching him walk into 1st grade with tears streaming down my face. I will be watching him go, completely clear-eyed and clear-headed, and prepared to explain to him that the world doesn’t work that well when it’s divided into the categories of Yours and Mine; that things work better when we commit to the idea of Ours; that everyone is pretty much as special as everyone else; that everyone is welcome; and that most of all, there is enough.

8 thoughts on “School Supply Insanity: Just Do It Or Just Say No?

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  1. I am awaiting my first List – my older birth child enters Kindergarten this year, and I wasn’t part of my step-son’s life yet when he started school – and I feel much more able to resist the ridiculous parts. Thank you!


  2. Wow. That is a specific, and ridiculous, request.

    Here’s what happens at our school: you write a cheque for $60, the teacher buys all the supplies for all the kids in the class and they share all the pencils. Easy peasy.


  3. Hello, Leslie!
    Excellent writing on a subject about which I care perhaps a little too much.. I have worked in schools a long time. I find the everything is disposable lesson quite distressing. The teacher with whom I interned had the pencils all gathered into one place, no names (for some children’s parents never send anything) and it was an assigned morning chore for two students to sharpen the pencils and place them in a common place. Students would pray to get the job of pencil sharpener. The teacher attempted to give everyone a chance.
    I read some place that Amish Children got two pencils at the start of each year and they were taught that the pencils for precious and a grave responsibility. Students I have worked with loose pencils constantly but I think a pack a month is excessive considering how long an Amish child is reputed to save 2 pencils. Gabe is going into first grade. Amazing.


  4. Leslie (her mom), what I can tell you for sure after teaching 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades for 35 years is that every kid wants to be part of the pack the first few days and have what he’s supposed to have! They don’t like feeling different right away. There are many opportunities for that as days gone on. Go to personalized and you can get them for 7 cents in 5 days! Love from Gabe’s grandmother!


  5. This was definitely laugh-out-loud stuff! Really too bad it’s true. Then our now-parents-themselves went to school I think they had a list of maybe six items, any color, any size, as long as it worked. Oh, for the “good old days! (twenty years ago?)


  6. Oh God I remember those days. I hated those lists, and dutifully bought every item on them. Broke the bank with 3 kids as you well know. High school is so much better don’t you think? Good to hear from you. Miss seeing you…maybe we can do a fall get together?


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