School Supplies Take On an Air of Immortality
- Blue Horse notebooks 14%
- Marbled composition books 22%
- Pencil boxes 10%
- Venus No. 2 pencils 16%
- Lunch boxes 33%
- Other (please comment below) 5%
63 total votes.
The calendar may change in January but for me, September will always ring in the new year, with lockers clattering and bells clanging down halls of polished linoleum.
What could be newer than new teachers, new subjects, new kids and a new ring binder covered in light blue canvas soon to be graffitied with curlicues, entwined names and, hopefully, college teams?
I don’t recall shopping for school supplies per se. In the 1950s, it had not yet become a commercial event equal to Halloween. In fact, in junior high, only nerds sported new stuff. The cool kids showed up with last year’s binders — the forerunner, perhaps, of pre-washed, pre-worn, pre-ripped, pretentious jeans.
School bags? You’d be laughed off campus. The girls carried books in the crook of their arms, and the boys threw them at each other.
Around here, I’ve noticed, nostalgia rules. That’s because residents own a certain, how-shall-I-say — patina. So, rather than a disillusioning cruise around Walmart or Staples, I will lovingly immortalize the tools that got me through Latin, geometry, American history and, my favorite class, homeroom.
n Royal Colored Pencils: How beautiful was the rainbow array in an easel box. These pencils were also paints, although I can’t remember if you dipped the pencil in water or rubbed the paper with a wet brush. My goal was the large-assortment box, usually too expensive. Had to make do with a dozen.
n Pencil sharpeners: Ah, the sweet smell of shavings littering down from a petite plastic sharpener. Remember the annoying kid who was always running up to the wall-mounted classroom pencil sharpener?
n Marbled black and white hardcover composition books: I cannot believe these survive although their purpose is a mystery. Pages don’t tear out neatly as in a spiral notebook, and the notebook doesn’t lie flat. Yet the black-and-whites have a certain permanence. I felt like a real student when I set one upon the desk. (About those spiral notebooks: Comical, how stores use them as loss leaders. What else does 15 cents buy these days?)
n Erasers: I remember three kinds — pink ones that fit over the end of a pencil (the boys had a disgusting name for them); spongy tan bricks that made a mess; and pink/gray half-and-halves for pencil and pen. When a pink eraser got dirty enough to smudge paper, we rubbed it on our tweed wool skirts to get a fresh surface.
n Protractors, rulers, compasses: I liked the wooden rulers with an embedded metal edge sharp enough to trip airport security alarms. Compasses, equally lethal, were great for poking Braille-like designs on notebook paper instead of paying attention. Protractors created professional-looking doodles on a ring binder, all of which horrified my mother. She taught math.
n Textbook covers: I made mine out of brown paper grocery bags instead of spending lipstick money on store-bought, which are now made in China and called Book Sox. There was a secret way of folding the brown paper to enclose the covers without using tape.
n Remember India ink? Cartridge pens? The smelly glue tubes that disappeared when kids started sniffing them?
n Remember typing on EzErase paper? Gregg shorthand transcribed on steno pads by girls in “commercial” classes? Carbon paper? Venus No. 2 pencils?
n May I borrow your slide rule?
n Lunch boxes: A child psychologist once told me that the lunch box battle was often the first seriously enjoined by parent and child. A parent can do damage to a child’s esteem, it seems, by forcing on him a babyish or otherwise uncool lunchbox. Cool may mean what the most popular kid is carrying. Cartoon themes rise and fall quicker than spelling grades. The best way to identify the “in” lunchbox is to buy the one that’s sold out.
n School bags/backpacks: How sad that for a while some schools required they be made of clear plastic so students couldn’t smuggle in weapons. As mentioned, I cannot remember a single book bag from kindergarten to B.A. Backpacks were for hiking and lawyers toted briefcases until they graduated to attaché cases. Kids just carried their books.
n As for zippered pencil pouches with holes that fit your ring binder, pul-leeze.
n Blue books were the dreaded conclusion to more than a decade of school supplies. College exams were written in flimsy little notebooks containing cheap lined paper stapled between blue covers — a degradation of the hard-won knowledge within. Diplomas, degrees and careers rose or fell on these blue books. A half-century after graduation the image still makes me clammy.
What we’re remembering, of course, is more than paper, lead and ink. These artifacts represent youth — promise, heartbreak, elation, mortification — the prerequisite for adulthood, sure as plane geometry comes before solid.
But that was long ago, when apple was a fruit, dell a place the farmer lived, keyboards belonged on pianos and notebooks weren’t rechargeable.
Actually, I’m amazed how many school supplies survive in recognizable form. When you think about it, kids used styluses to inscribe papyrus long before the Big Ten appeared on stone tablets.
So maybe, where school supplies are concerned, we’re onto something right.
Contact Deborah Salomon at debsalomon@hotmail. com.
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