Back-to-school demands multiply in middle school

Sunday, August 22, 2010

NEW YORK -- Like millions of other parents this time of year, I'm about to embark on the annual scavenger hunt known as back-to-school shopping.

I thought this dreadful ritual would get easier when my youngest son reached middle school, but in fact it merely multiplied from one nerve-racking list, to six -- along with the number of teachers he has.

I would be fine if these lists were simple reminders of basic supplies -- pencils, pens, paper, notebooks. Sure, they need a few folders and a book bag, and as math gets more complicated, graph paper and a calculator. I can even understand index cards, Post-its and a yellow highlighter.

But how many times do you see parents wandering up and down the aisles of Staples or Walmart or OfficeMax searching for items that either don't exist or have sold out in a frenzy as mothers of every child in Miss So-and-So's class fought for the last graph paper marble composition book, fine-point Flair pen or half-inch three-ring binder (no one-inchers allowed!) on earth?

The worst part of this retail insanity is that, at least with my son, half of this stuff never gets used. I have a drawer full of Post-its in every conceivable color and size, ordered up over the years by any number of teachers.

Other school supplies simply vanish once they are in my home, only to be found years later. My older son recently graduated from high school and cleaned his room for the first time in I'd rather not say how many years. Somewhere in that horrifying mess -- on the floor, under the bed, in drawers and the closet -- he was harboring hundreds of pens and pencils.

I always wondered how we went through so many of them every year, and now I know. When he needed a writing implement, he used it once, then apparently threw it into the landfill otherwise known as his room. Either that, or he's like those cat hoarders who have 37 felines in their homes, only he's hoarding Bic ballpoints and No. 2 pencils.

One aspect of back-to-school supply shopping is tougher for parents of younger children. Their teachers still want arts and craft-type supplies, and some can be pretty obscure.

"For my kindergartner, I was asked to bring in colored feathers, which I finally found at a craft store," said Holly Michael of Dayton, Ohio. "Another time I was assigned colored, scented stamp pads. My mom is a teacher herself, and between the two of us, we went to four different craft and teacher stores trying to find them, and they weren't cheap."

Michael, who works for a public relations and marketing agency, adds that "as a working mom, I don't always have time to run out and find these odd requests."

Linda Kramer of Gibbon, Minn., used to go nuts looking for the "box of eight crayons" ordered up by her children's preschool teacher. "It seems simple enough, but they're nearly impossible to find, and each year I find myself searching store after store, never remembering from one year to the next where I was successful in finding them. When I finally find them, they cost something like $2 for the tiny little box," she said. She finally realized she could buy a box of 24 crayons for less than $1 and just send in the basic eight colors in a bag.

Another issue I have is with all the supplies ordered up by teachers to keep my children organized. In September, I dutifully purchase whatever they require: The accordion file with alphabetical pockets, double-pocket folders, spiral-bound notebooks with one pocket inside the front cover.

At the end of the year, all of my children's school work is in a giant random stack of paper, organized neither by subject nor date.

Hwever, since so many school supplies go untouched, I can recycle them. I just have to hope the teacher who orders up college-ruled marble composition books this year won't mind that I'm substituting last year's wide-ruled spirals. And that the unused Pokemon folders are so old, they're retro rather than out-of-date.

Then again, since chances are slim that those folders will actually be used, it probably won't matter.

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