For years, an item on one of our favorite teacher's back-to-school supply list perplexed many parents. The search for a 15x13x2-inch Rubbermaid drawer organizer sent a couple dozen parents on a wild goose chase through Staples, Target, and God help us, Wal-Mart. In those days before local Facebook groups and Amazon Prime, many parents felt alone in our quest, and alone to handle our children's meltdowns on dirty linoleum department store floors.
Nine years later, that drawer organizer lives in my kitchen as the only organized part of my overflowing junk drawer. But I'm not sure it helped my kid learn how to spell.
While all teachers don't include a seemingly random, hard-to-find item on their lists, we've all experienced the drama associated with bringing a child to find exactly what his or her teacher put on the list, and the pain at the register when we realize we're spending the equivalent of a week's worth of groceries on glue sticks, colored pencils, composition notebooks, and folders emblazoned with just the right kitten picture.
That's one year. And one kid.
Depending on the school district and on the age of your child, parents can be asked to spend an average of $100 to $200 per child per year on school supplies. Unless, of course, it's the year your child needs the archaic, overpriced Texas Instruments graphing calculator (the TI-84.) Then you'll need a home equity loan.
To many of us, the cost of buying binders and notebooks isn't as painful as seeing those supplies come back home in June, only to sit in a backpack until September, when a new teacher requests different items.
But here's the thing, rule-followers: Teachers are nice, reasonable people, and provide these lists only as guidelines.
"As a teacher I tell my students to get whatever is helpful for them," says a teacher friend in Massachusetts. "I expect them to take notes. No laptops. I also ask them to keep a folder for handouts, especially articles that I use as material for exams. The only other things I need are Clorox wipes and tissues."
Because many families cannot afford the cost of school supplies and because of severe cuts to our education budgets, teachers often request items in the hopes that some students will be able to provide for those who can't. One friend said she writes classroom "wish list" items on sticky notes for parents to take home during orientation or open house.
A recent NPR story highlighted the plight of one teacher who, frustrated by the lack of funds to outfit her classroom, decided to panhandle by the side of the road for money to buy supplies. Following a social media post showing her holding a sign by the side of the road, a GoFundMe page raised $26,000, which she'll share with her fellow teachers.
The Oklahoma third-grade teacher says she spends about $2,000 of her own money each year on classroom materials.
A teacher at one of Connecticut's 19 CREC schools (Capitol Region Education Council) says elementary school students are not asked to bring any supplies to school. Everything is provided by either CREC or by teachers. It is hoped that students bring a small backpack, and she requests a change of clothes and a package of unscented wipes.
A survey of some friends revealed a wide variety of compliance with school supply lists. Some say they buy everything, others say they buy what they and their kids think they'll need, and others wait until school starts to get the necessities. My high school sophomore tells me that despite the fact that I used to check off each item on his list before the first day of school, he would have been fine with a pencil and a few pieces of paper.
Two friends who are parents of children with ADHD say they've learned over the years to buy what works for their children in terms of organization. A neighbor says he's realized his son isn't so great at handling binders for each subject, but does fine when things are organized by one binder for morning classes and another for afternoon classes.
The majority of people I heard from say that during the first few years of school, they complied with the school supply requests before the start of the school year, but learned over the years to wait it out.
My own advice: Invest in good, plain backpacks that will not only survive being shoved in the bottom of a locker, but also won't go out of style. One $50 LLBean backpack is way more economical than the $20 Disney "Frozen" backpack she won't be caught dead using in a year.
And a teacher friend says if you send your kid to school with just one thing, make it a box of tissues. Given the yucky runny noses our kids will be bringing home in a few weeks, she says, "You can never have enough Kleenex."
Teresa M. Pelham is a Farmington-based writer who has enough unopened glue sticks to hang wallpaper across Kansas. She is the author of three children's books, and frequently visits schools with her therapy dog to share her message about animal rescue. Contact Teresa at firstname.lastname@example.org.