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The Museum of School Supplies

Identifying the age of ancient artifacts involves scientific methods and carbon dating. Frequently, these artifacts are everyday objects that have turned to stone from sitting around so long. The items in my school supply stash aren’t stone just yet—but some have been sitting around for 15 years or more. I know this without the aid of carbon dating because I remember the various styles and trends in back-to-school supplies throughout the years.

I know because I keep everything.

If this is not a problem you have, congratulations. Guess we won’t be seeing you on an episode of Hoarders anytime soon. I, on the other hand, had accumulated a school supply stash many years and layers deep.

Two bad habits led me down this dysfunctional path. First of all, each fall I would buy additional supplies just in case someone ran out midyear. They added up over time. Some items were on sale—too good a bargain to pass up—so I stockpiled. (How can you say no to a 17 cent spiral notebook?) Others were purchased because my two daughters begged—loudly, obnoxiously, knowing I’d be at my breaking point seven hours into the back-to-school shopping marathon.

What they wanted was never stuff that showed up on any teacher’s list of required school supplies. Nope, it was impulse buying, an ugly “I want it!” moment backed by claims that they’d start school off on the right foot if only this wondrous object was theirs. Years later, here I was, turning over said object in my hands, realizing it was never actually used.

Smart parents know if it wasn’t used that year, it will never be; these savvy people discard leftover supplies at the end of June. Not me. I kept everything.

Which brings me to my second bad habit. At the end of June, when my daughters dragged home backpacks bursting with old notebooks, battered but fully functional three-ring binders and packs of still unsharpened pencils—I’d hold onto them. I’d rescue notebooks, tearing out used pages and erasing or whiting over writing on the cover, and scrub binders to remove a year’s worth of wear and marks.

I had two shelves of school supplies in the spare bedroom. One held new items never used, and the other held recycled supplies. Throughout the year, whenever anyone asked for a new notebook, folder or other item, I’d reply, “Go shopping in the spare bedroom.”

This worked when they were younger and we bought plain-colored notebooks and folders. But as they got older and insisted on cartoon characters, big-eyed puppies and kitties, or whatever was popular that year, they were less inclined to go to school with untrendy materials. Nothing looked worse than passing off last year’s school supplies as new.

That’s why I mention carbon dating. It works when the item is barely recognizable, but those of us with a school supply stash know our sins. Moms and dads like me have long memories, and we don’t need no stinkin’ science. We need only examine the cover of a notebook to know its “born in” year. We’d gone through Lisa Frank’s rainbow unicorns, Paul Frank’s monkey faces, Disney’s Buzz Lightyear, various Disney princesses, dolphins leaping across the seascape of the cosmos, gothic swirls and splotches of ink or blood, skulls intertwined with roses, city skylines and famous tourist locales like the Eiffel Tower, finally returning to plain solid-color covers once my daughters were too old and too cool for childish designs.

Once the girls went off to college, you’d think I’d have been shed of school supplies. And you’d be mistaken. I continued to hold onto my hoard, rationalizing that if they came home during winter or spring break or returned next summer, one or both might need something from the stash. To be honest, they rarely did.

Nobody was “shopping” in the spare bedroom for school supplies anymore, but I couldn’t let them to go to waste. So I kept a to-do list in a marbled composition notebook and loose recipes in a three-ring binder, while my husband took notes in a black-and-white splattered notebook with a faintly emo theme.

But the two of us only made a tiny dent. I had to do something. I kept thinking I’d donate everything to a charity that gathered supplies for kids but decided that underprivileged kids did not need to be saddled with outdated notebook designs.

Then one evening in May over dinner, my friend Gayle—a teacher at Jordan-Elbridge—told me of her efforts to collect new and used school supplies for kids in Malawi: “I was hoping the students at my school would just donate their used notebooks instead of throwing them out. The organizers said they’d be grateful for items in any condition.”

Next time I saw Gayle, I handed her four big bags. She was delighted, but her joy didn’t match mine. I had excavated down to the bare shelves. No monkeys, spacemen, or rainbow unicorns on my back anymore. I was free.

Then the thing that I’d been worrying about for years—the thing that drove me to hoard school supplies—came to pass. My younger daughter, taking a summer course at a nearby college, ran past me half an hour before her first class. “I didn’t have a chance to get a notebook and binder. I’m going shopping in the spare bedroom.” Then I heard a scream.

“MOM! What have you done? Where’s the school supply stash?”

Halfway to Malawi by now, I wanted to say. But instead, I ripped the to-do list out of my composition notebook, removed the recipes from the binder, and handed both to her along with a twenty. “I’ll explain later. Take
these for now. Buy what you want after class. And have a good first day.”

Linda Lowen writes for MSN.com, teaches at the Downtown Writer’s Center and is co-producer and co-host of Take Care, a health and wellness radio show on WRVO. She lives in Syracuse with her husband and two daughters.


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