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Commentary: Can't Resist School Supplies

By Mildred Blaisdell

Buffalo, NY – Oscar Wilde said, I can resist anything except temptation. I can resist anything except school supplies.

Last month on vacation in North Carolina I needed to go to a Walmart to buy a sand chair. While my husband was picking up a battery for his watch, I wandered around the store only to find myself surrounded by school supplies. Marble notebooks for only 75 , packs of college ruled notebook paper, two pocket folders for 15 each, personalized rulers and calculators that would make perfect back-to-school gifts for the young girls in our department. And this was just at the end of the aisle. I couldn't let myself venture into the the main part of the aisle. It was difficult. It was wrong to be thinking about school supplies on the first day of a week at the beach. It was exhausting. I picked up my chair and returned to the beach house.

I've always been obsessed by school supplies. Sometimes I think that I became a teacher because of the supply closet at Highland Elementary school. If I close my eyes I can still see where the colored chalk was stored, where the piles of construction paper sat, and where the squat cans of chunky paste occupied the corner of the floor. Even in second grade I realized that being a teacher could give me unlimited access to that supply cupboard.

Well, I don't have unlimited access to the supply cupboard at my high school, but I do have an unlimited supply of stores where I can buy my new pens, notebooks, giant rubber bands, colored folders and overhead pens. This year a see-through accordion file is at the top of my must-have list.

While I was holding myself back from the aisle of school supplies in Walmart, I had to ask myself, what's the big fascination? It gave me lots of things to think about while I was sitting in the sand for the rest of the week.

At first, I thought that the acquiring of new supplies in September is part of the consumer culture that we're surrounded by, but then, I realized that it's something else. School supplies equal hope. Both teachers and students alike approach every new year with hope. Without hope, no one could be dragged into a school.

We hope that people will like us, that we'll be smart, that we'll be organized, that we'll avoid feeling overwhelmed by everything that we have to do. This year we won't let ourselves fall behind, become discouraged, or make excuses. New school supplies can help us create this new hopeful world. Who could miss an assignment with a new planner? Who could mislay homework with these new folders? Who could lose notes with a notebook that has these fancy dividers? Deep in our hearts, we know that we could, but we bury that fear with new planners, and folders and notebooks.

Really good school supplies are like talismaen, primitive good luck charms in a world of rational intellectual pursuit. It's always fun to see a student with a new pen that she loves. Look at how smoothly it writes! she'll exclaim. Isn't that beautiful? Or a boy will pull out a mammoth notebook with zippers and pockets and dividers and smile fondly at it with a smile that one usually only sees when a boy looks at his first car. Some of the teachers in my department buy notebooks with a clear sheet over the cover that we can decorate with pictures we love. Will this pen make her a better writer? Make him more organized? Will this lovely picture make it a better course? Perhaps. In those first few days when the objects are new, anything is possible.

No one thinks about what our new acquisitions will look like in April because we all know the truth. We'll prefer to duct tape a folder's spine rather than spend 15 for a new one. Notebook paper will have curled edges from sitting in a backpack for eight months. Pens will run out of ink; mechanical pencils will be leadless. When we look back over the year there will be successes and failures. We've met some of our goals; we can't even remember others. Spring break will save our sanity and give us the strength to soldier on until finals.

But September is all possibility. Self help books are based on this premise. If we fall off the diet or fall off the wagon, we can start again and again and again. Teachers and students know that and so we all head off to the office supply stores to load up on markers and colored pencils and new gel pens. We've got hope. This year will be better.

Mildred Blaisdell is a teacher at Williamsville East High School.