A Word On School Supply Lists

I remember back-to-school shopping when I was a kid. I was a bookworm, and nothing filled me with more pleasure than going out to buy all my supplies and a new book bag. I couldn’t wait to get to school. I organized my bag, I labeled my supplies, and then I went back to my summer reading list to try and sneak in one more book (or two) before school started.

This year, it will be my oldest child, Theodore, who goes off to school, and I recently took him shopping for school supplies.

Gone was the childlike excitement over freshly sharpened pencils and perfect, unused pink erasers. Instead of gleefully filling a book bag, I had to fight to suppress the sobs that filled my throat as I piled the supplies in my cart.

Among many other things, some of Theo’s required shopping list included: a pair of tennis shoes to leave at school year round, 16 glue sticks (which we will be asked to “refresh” midway through the year), a box of gallon zip lock bags, and four packs of crayons. FOUR.

Did you know that worldwide, there are over 62 million girls who aren’t in school? 62. MILLION. (source)

These girls aren’t in school because they either don’t have the infrastructure in place, they are too impoverished to attend, or because of their gender – they aren’t allowed. Millions more are fighting to stay in school, but it’s a losing battle for many of the aforementioned reasons.

My frustration over my son’s school supply list has very little to do with the hassle of shopping or the amount of money we spent, and everything to do with our culture’s misguided ideology of what is necessary for education.

We will cut art, music, and recess but 16 glue sticks are fundamental, crucial, to a child’s education. 

This is not a rant against teachers. Goodness. If you aren’t lucky enough to know or be married to a teacher then you can’t possibly know how much our teachers spend out of pocket to take care of kids whose parents can’t provide what their child needs.

My dear friend commented on a FB post recently, “It’s a lot of stuff, for sure! Just imagine how much teachers supply out of their own pockets throughout the year and for families who aren’t able to supply scissors, crayons, glue, etc.”

Mike routinely takes in items for his students. Things like blankets for the kid whose family had the heat turned off. Shoes for the students whose toes poke through the ends of their hand-me-downs. Hygienic items for those whose parents can’t or won’t notice that their child has turned into a teen and now needs things like deodorant.

There are so many people in this world fighting for survival; Fighting just to be in school.

After I unloaded all of Theo’s school supplies into the van and got him settled with a snack and cuddled Beatrice into her carseat, I sat in my front seat and sobbed.

Just, sobbed.

Walking out of Target with my Starbucks coffee and cart full of school supplies made me feel white, privileged, and gross.

I felt grateful, so grateful, that we were able to save up and have the money – the cash! – to go school supply shopping. But I knew that for every one family who was able to do this, there are 10 who can’t.

And sure, I know that part of the reason why school supply lists have reached such an extreme level is that parents who are able to pay help cover those who can’t. I am not arguing this point or against helping supply my children’s teachers and classrooms with the things necessary for their education.

I just think we have a seriously jacked up idea of “what is necessary.”

I’ve discovered first hand as a mom just how little kids need to learn. They require so little! They are ready made learners. All they needs is someone willing to engage them, some creativity, and of course, plenty of space and opportunity to play.

As I look at the school supply list, it was a sad reminder of how we have commercialized everything in our country, which only deepens the divide between the haves and the have-nots. It always boils down to who can afford to pay, and who cannot.

For the past five + years, Mike and I have been living on a a shoe string budget. I don’t own a cabinet full of craft and education supplies. We have the occasional glue stick, craft paint, and of course – stickers. But that is really about it, give or take a Dollar Tree item every now and then. And you know what? Theo has somehow managed to learn a whole host of things despite our serious lack of “supplies.”

I once heard a woman talk about growing up poor and black in the Bronx. She said she was so discouraged to hear people constantly tell black and/or poor people to just “work hard” and then their problems would be solved.

She said she never met anyone who worked harder than her mother and her father. Never.

It’s not always the people who aren’t working. Sometimes it’s our system. Our culture.

We do our children and society as a whole a disservice by turning education into this consumeristic, privileged, dog and pony show. We teach our children that education can be boiled down to these things. We tell them that they need certain things to learn. We tell them they need newness. We tell them they need shiny plastic things. We tell them they need stuff.

We teach them to be entitled. To take the core of education for granted. We fail to teach them that education in and of itself has value.

We fail to communicate that for every 3-pack of dry erase markers that we deem as necessary, there is a child in another country who has one thing on her list of vital things for her education:

an opportunity

Do I have answers to these frustrations? Honestly, in the quiet corners of my heart, I kind of feel like the answer is yes. I think I really do. But it would require so much more than just me. It requires a movement. A whole generation of people who say that enough is enough, that it’s time to get back to basics.

For me, I’m really struggling with the decision to send Theo to school, and our back-to-school shopping really brought that to a zenith. I believe in education with all my heart and soul, but I’m not so convinced about this school thing. Sadly, they aren’t one in the same.

I think we as a culture get really caught up in just doing things for the sake of doing things, or do things because it’s the mainstream, culturally approved way of doing things.

That just isn’t good enough for me.

So for me, I have a lot of thinking and praying to do. I have a lot of tough questions to ask. I need to ask how I can be a part of the solution, and not be a contributing factor to the problems. I have people I admire that I need to sit down with and pick their brains. And in the end, I have to do what will give my heart peace.

I wonder what you think after reading this. I’m very interested to hear in other peoples’ opinions on the subject, particularly my international readers. Weigh in. Share your thoughts. Do you think the list is symbolic of our consumerism? Or do you find it to just be par for the course, and simply the way modern education in the US operates?




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