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Three reasons school supply shopping destroys lives

Three reasons school supply shopping destroys lives

My lack of planning should be a top emergency for the nation’s school supply retailers. With six school-aged kids and their jam-packed lists, I dread this time of year more than any other. I’d rather do 100% of my holiday shopping at a convenience store on Christmas Eve than shop for school supplies. Therefore, I avoid it and don’t make eye contact with school supply departments until the last minute.

It doesn’t help that I must buy 38 glue sticks and nearly 500 pencils, 18 boxes of facial tissue, and enough markers to cover my toddler’s arms in his self-styled, homemade tattoos until he’s an octogenarian. I recently shopped and didn’t come close to completing the lists.

There are three reasons school supply shopping is an almost universally awful experience. If you are one of those parents who adores standing in a crowded aisle at a big-box retailer comparing the prices between one pack of 12 glue sticks and 6 packs of 2 glue sticks, this isn’t the post for you.

1. Teachers create lists of hard-to-find, baffling things

Most of my kids can bring in regular, store brand pencils. One of my kids, however, must bring the most expensive brand of pencil on the market. I believe these pencils are hand-carved from virgin oak by Bavarian artisans. They are painted yellow with dye made from strands of crushed saffron. The graphite rods are surgical grade and pure enough to slay a vampire if shot into his cold heart. With every stroke, the scent of sandalwood is released into the air. We must provide 75 of these snooty pencils, pre-sharpened. But guess what? I’m only providing half because I have other stuff to buy. My son won’t go through a single pencil every 2 days, anyway. Will he?

It’s also annoying when teachers require certain colors. What happened to getting the folder of your choice and writing MATH at the top? No, it must be magenta with two pockets, 3 prongs, plastic, and opaque. An example from this year’s very anal lists include highlighters in 5 different colors. Two of my kids must bring yellow, blue, green, pink, and purple highlighting pens. But we could only find packs with yellow, blue, green, pink, and ORANGE. I bought them anyway, feeling like a rebel. Ha! Take that. I’ve also been known to wear mis-matched socks and sneak cheap candy bars into movies. While all the good kids are highlighting passages in purple, mine will be using ORANGE and getting along just fine, I’m sure.

2. School supply buyers at stores must not have actual kids who attend actual schools

Dear Big Box Retailer School Supply Buyer: I promise you, with every cell in my tired body, there is no teacher who has ever, ever required glitter pens and locker chandeliers on their lists. Yet you have entire aisles devoted to the sensibilities of 10-year-old girls. Are you a 10-year-old girl? There are plenty of teachers who require multiple boxes of markers, both fine and wide-tipped. They also tend to list crazy things like crayons and glue sticks. But you run out of these items more than a week before school starts. It betrays a lack of planning and insight on your part. I understand not wanting to be stuck with excess inventory, but crayons and glue are staples. They will sell if you had them stacked to the ceiling.

We visited three stores to cobble together our kids’ school supplies and we still couldn’t find everything. We were continually baffled by empty bins and shelves that normally house the very basics of school supplies. Had our kids needed wall maps of North America and scented erasers, we would have been thrilled. I can see them now, with their gargantuan maps spread on their desks and teeny rubber strawberry-scented unicorns perched atop their pencils.

I know why your stock is low: You want to make it easier for the Halloween costumes and decorations to crash into stores the moment the school bell rings. You’ll put all the locker chandeliers on clearance and meanwhile my kids will be writing with stumpy crayons culled from the bottom of my purse with restaurant names printed on the paper.

3. My own pathetic lack of planning, foresight, and energy

I’m fair. I realize the nightmare of school shopping doesn’t lie entirely in ridiculous lists and poor retail planning. I could have started shopping on the last day of school, when my kids brought home their report cards and next year’s school supply lists. I had all summer to collect glue, wide-ruled paper, and sticky notes. However, the prices on these items are high during the off-season. I could stock up on armloads of binders and clear dividers, but at a very real cost. Parents wait until right before school starts because prices become more friendly and accessible.

There is a sweet spot with school shopping. I’m picturing a two-hour window on a morning in late July when bountiful stock and rock-bottom prices meet. The lucky parents who shop during this mythical moment, akin to a portal opening to Xanadu itself, are blessed creatures indeed. I am not one of them. I’m the mom loudly asking her kids if they actually used all those dry erase markers I bought last year. You never mention dry erase markers at the dinner table, I stammer.

They sigh and I feel humbled. At least I can buy supplies. They are receiving great educations and have teachers who (mostly) look the other way when the ruler is wood instead of plastic. So much has to come together to educate our kids these days. When stress is added, it compounds until the worst problem you face is that the sticky notes are pink and not yellow.

That’s a problem many of the world’s parents would love to have. Griping about school supplies is easy to do. It’s a trap, though, born from a way of life in a place where we have that luxury. I need to remind myself to get a grip and have some perspective.

I will never, ever believe in snooty pencils though.

Author: gretchen

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  1. I whole-heartedly agree with all three items but why only three? I could easily do a Top 10 list.

    This year, I got up EARLY to go back-to-school shopping for my son and the store was gloriously devoid of crowds. Daughter’s new school has a $250 materials cost, which I was assumed covered everything but just got a list from the teacher. So back to the trenches, I go. Horrors.

  2. Because I only have to purchase school supplies for two kids, I think I get away pretty easy. But I dread the shopping for supplies, and next year, I’m going the route of buying them through the PTO, and having them sent right to the school. $40/kid- no stores? Sold!

  3. I got that sheet 3 months ago. The 40$ one that gets sent straight to school. In fact, it’s still in my purse, neatly folded as a reminder that I have something to do.

    School starts next Thursday.

    I’ll be joining you in those isles because I didn’t get a SINGLE thing from that sheet of paper.

    Good news, my purse will be cleaner by one sheet of paper when I throw it away and wait for next years sheet.

    She’s only in kindergarten.. I’m screwed if the next 12 years are like this for her.

  4. Great article! Our schools not only ask for 500 glue sticks, they want a 25.00 classroom fee …. I have 9 kids! 7 in school….. I’m excited!

  5. Way too early we voted up here in the mtns and we don’t start to after Labor DAY.

  6. Yes! Yes! Yes!

  7. “enough markers to cover my toddler’s arms in his self-styled, homemade tattoos until he’s an octogenarian”
    Ohmygosh, this cracks me up! What a great post! Hope it makes it to the desks of the Big Box marketing managers.
    We got our 6 six kids through school before the onslaught of ridiculously detailed supply lists. But I do provide a shoulder to cry on for Heth each August and my heart is sympathetic as I pass the frazzled looking moms in the supply aisles.

  8. Gretchen – I agree. I loathe buying supplies. And my kids are dazzled by the fancy erasers and locker mirrors why I try to get them to pick out plain pencils. Some of those supplies are crazy…we have the colored binders, certain colors, prongs and no prongs, pockets, no pockets. Just chasing 2 kids through the aisles is more than overwhelming for me. I don’t know how you do it.

  9. Cross my heart. While I was shopping for my TWO kids on Saturday (and going out of my mind for these very reasons), I was wondering how on EARTH does Gretchen do this!??

    You nailed it.

    Oh, and I want some of those saffron-and-sandalwood pencils.

  10. I can only imagine shopping for 6 kids, and I would want to cry when it came time to separate everyone’s goods. I’m so proud of you for making it through three stores and 6 lists. Go YOU!

  11. I’m a newbie at this and only have one kid to shop for, so I was actually excited to shop for school supplies, though the quantity of pencils and glue sticks was a bit perplexing. As was why I was buying Kleenex, Clorox wipes and Ziploc bags. But, I learned something this morning. Neither my daughter nor I were going to be held personally responsible if I didn’t get everything exactly right as requested. Everything went into a community wagon and there was no one checking off what I had brought in as I thought there would be! Keeping that in mind for next year. 🙂

  12. You are singing my song! The other thing I hate is that no matter what the lists say, teachers add things on the first day, especially in high school. So I’ve just resigned myself to being at Walmart yet again on the first night, along with every other parent in town, yelling, “Where the heck are the composition books?”

  13. I, too, have it easy. Although, last year, I wasn’t sure why the Kindergarten class needed over a THOUSAND gluesticks. I’m not even kidding. Anyway, I timed it perfectly this year. I went to one store, and the displays were laid out according to my list. I was in and out in record time and under budget. No, I couldn’t believe it either!

  14. I had to buy golf pencils one year. I am sure they were never used. I’m skeptical now because the first year we bought everything and then were told that the list was prepared by all the teachers and that our daughter’s teacher didn’t actual want 1/4 of the stuff on the list.

  15. I enjoyed school shopping this year. It was my first year of school shopping though.

  16. In defense of the expensive pencils, cheap pencils are the pits. Frequently you can sharpen 2/3 of the pencil away the first time it hits the sharpener because the lead isn’t straight in the wood and it won’t sharpen properly. And then if you manage to get it to sharpen, the lead is broken inside the pencil in multiple places so just when you start writing you end up heading back to the sharpener again. And, yes, many students can’t hold onto a pencil for two days at a stretch. I’m with you on the specifically colored notebooks and folders, but understand the pencil requirement.

  17. I’m pretty sure if you simply walked up to the register and stuck a saffron pencil in your vein it would be easier. Or a golf pencil – I giggled, only because I can relate. WHO ARE these people who enjoy this crap? OH. I see Catherine used that word, enjoy. Silly rookie 🙂 I always enjoy your dose of reality, Gretchen!

  18. I no longer feel bound by the supply list. The idea everything is shared and some kids destroy and waste supplies upsets my kids. I just make sure my kids have what they need and supply common items they will use in the classroom such as paper towels and tissues and forget the rest. I work in the schools and see the waste, quite often the lists are repeated every year even though that is not what the current teacher wants. I buy when things are actually needed. Last year one teacher wanted five spirals, I knew from first child that that was not the case. Yep second child used only two, the big number was just in case. My kids like to have their own supplies in their binders so glue sticks and markers are in working order.
    Kat mom to many

  19. Great post, Gretchen! I opted for the PTO online to to purchase school supplies for my two kids. It felt like concierge service when we showed up to back to school night and everything was already there, nicely packaged and ready to go. We still had to brave the big-box store crowds though, to pick up things like printer paper, glue sticks, pencils and markers – for all of the projects that will need to be completed at home.

    Great sense of humor and timing! I have to remember that one day school supplies be a drop in the bucket, at least compared to college tuition. 🙂

  20. Yet another reason I am *thrilled* to be part of a school ( where we are free of this sort of insanity. Our students can make use of a wide range of supplies provided by the school, and can bring whatever else they want — or try convincing the appropriate committee to buy more with school funds! (The school’s run democratically, and that includes the budget, the rules, even hiring.)

    Specifying brands of pencils and colors of markers and folders? How exactly does that enhance our children’s learning? Life’s hard (and short) enough without adding these sorts of artificial lessons (and stressors).

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