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The demand of the supplies

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Have you bought school supplies lately? It ain't easy.

By Steve Doyle

Now that our students are safely back in their classrooms, parents all over Shelby County can wipe their brows and fall backwards into our recliners in overwhelmed fatigue. That seasonal onslaught is behind us, and we have survived once again the Battle of School Supplies.

Are you one of us, we parents who are assailed annually by requirements that our students must arrive for the first day of school towing a small U-Haul trailer filled with everything from some stratus of computer to a certain color of pencil to be used for a chapter in a one-term geography workbook?

If I sound confounded and a bit battered I’m betting I’m not alone. The demands of school supplies now have more stipulations than a college entrance packet. Only the ACT and SAT benchmarks are missing – at least for anyone younger than 13.

School supplies have become cornerstones of every economic element debated in our society. They create an elementary example of capitalism that appears to be rigged to set up gouging prices through a class-action level of collusion, and they include basic instruction in that much- feared practice of socialism.

Do you disagree?

Why else would a student be required to take to class a certain type of notebook, with a certain style of folder, a certain set of pencils (colored and otherwise), certain types of binders, certain model of scissors or edition of dictionary or – see this – clear contact paper to cover textbooks.

Do you get the idea that there have to be certain types of everything?

Why do teachers get to determine our choices in the free market? Why can’t we go to a store, pick out a spiral notebook that fits our prices and a color scheme approved by our children and use it? What difference does it make? Can the number of dividers and where the rule is drawn really make a difference in the learning power of our young ones? Isn’t variety the tie of binders?

This is crazy, especially given we are supposed to be nearing a paperless society.

Maybe I’m jealous. In my educational days, I loved the first days of school because the notebook paper was clean and fresh, the pencils were unchewed and especially sharp (even if I wasn’t), and I had a new binder of my choosing that matched my coolness meter at the time (OK, I never registered on that meter, but I tried, right down to the number of holes and color of the left margin rule). We might have had a fresh box of Crayolas, and we used recycled grocery bags for to save our books. Maybe we bought one of those Blue Horse booklets for a test or report, and I sometimes branched out to the lighter-writing No. 3 pencils because I preferred their lack of scratchiness (my cursive provided that). Most teachers didn’t like that, but it wasn’t that big a deal. They were concerned if I managed to do the work, no matter the lead and the lines.

That’s about as complicated as our supply-side economics became.

But somewhere in the epoch since then, things changed. Now school supply lists are pages long. There are lists for every class. They are detailed, with minutiae that cross eyes and dot t’s. And even with that, you log into your school’s Web site, and that posted list may have been adjusted. If you have more than one child, your problems multiply.

Some stores even receive a school district’s supply lists to use in ordering and displaying said supplies. You wouldn’t suggest that prices creep up on items that are listed, would you? Yes, collusion.

All this new specificity fights bargain hunters, too. A frugal parent can’t use end-of-season discounts and plan ahead for the next school year. Stocking up doesn’t work, because if you buy, say, college-ruled notebooks and wide-ruled becomes the favored style, then you are left holding product like someone who tried to corner a non-existent Beanie Babies market.

And then there’s the socialism.

Has your child been asked to provide a certain number of baby wipes, boxes of tissue, paper towels – heck, paper towels hadn’t even been invented when I was in sixth grade – and even snacks for everyone? Isn’t that socialism? Everyone sharing the wealth of the classroom? Those with the most contributing to those with the least, even to blow their noses? Rush Limbaugh must be apoplectic, if he had a clue.

I understand this is all very important and that I may be coming across as churlish, but let’s also face that this is all very big business.

In Florida, where I lived for years, the legislature designated an entire preschool weekend to be tax free for school supplies up to about $500. Enough said.

You see the magnitude of all of this, and, like  the technology bubble investors saw burst about six or seven years ago, you see it growing and growing until – we only can hope – it all bursts  into a puddle of simplicity.

But don’t mention that too loudly. Some teacher may think students need to bring bubble soap for everyone.