Supply Sergeant Takes the Field

Deep at the bottom of a pile of mail and magazines, buried on my desk under some bills and catalogs, the school supply lists wait like marching orders for deployment on some distant August day.

That day is here at last.

Excited for school to begin? Me? Perish the thought.

Just because I'll be alone in a quiet house where dirty dishes don't materialize on crumb-covered kitchen counters like ants at a picnic; where doors don't slam or hang open to let in the hot, humid August air; where the sounds of children bickering or blaring TV reruns of Full House aren't emanating from the basement beneath my home office, doesn't mean I'm happy that my four children will soon resume their schooling.

OK, I'm happy. They're happy, too.

Buying school supplies signals the return to real life. My youngest daughter, anticipating third grade and bored with summer, has lobbied for weeks for a trip to the superstore for pens, pencils, crayons, markers, notebooks, and a new bottle of school glue, but I refuse to purchase these items until a day or two before school starts.

This is because I can afford to stock up only once, and I know if there's a backpack full of supplies sitting in her room, the temptation to break into them will be too great.

But now the countdown has begun in earnest, so I round up my four scholars, retrieve the supply lists from my desk, rob a bank, and we're off to Target.

We have a system. Everyone gets a small shopping basket to keep the supplies separated. We put our four small baskets into two shopping carts, I hand out the lists, and we head to the back corner of the store where the seasonal display includes a cardboard cutout of a yellow school bus filled with shelves of Crayola products.

I wish I owned Crayola.

The shopping trip starts off slowly, but within a few moments, I morph from a pleasant mom/supply coordinator into an Army sergeant shouting orders in the field.

“Get two boxes of No. 2 pencils, pronto.”

“Bring me four packages of loose-leaf paper — make that college-rule, not wide.”

“Find the rulers — wooden, not plastic.”

We muddle through the lists, checking off the items as we load the carts. I try to keep my platoon in line, but they're fanned out across the battlefield, pushing their way through the throngs of children and mothers and fathers digging deep into the bins of pens and markers.

Invariably, amid the search for the items on the lists provided by the school, my children succumb to the marketing strategies of people whose job it is to invent useless, unrealistic filing systems for school-age children. They start begging for Trapper Keepers, in which you apparently can store a year's worth of schoolwork, your cell phone (of course), your contraband lip gloss, and the dirty gym clothes you don't bring home to be washed.

I've fallen for these contraptions in the past, but no more. I learned long ago that you can spend $12 on what looks like a very cool notebook/pocket folder/dictionary/assignment diary only to find within the first two weeks of school that all homework assignments, regardless of the subject, are simply folded in half and slipped into the math book.

At last we conclude the mission — not without an argument about why I won't allow pocket folders with pictures of Hilary Duff on them (“because I just don't”) — but before we check out, we collect the required rolls of paper towels, boxes of Kleenex, and bottles of antibacterial soap included on our lists. I wonder aloud (as I do every year) why the school budget doesn't include such basic items.

At last, we head to the checkout counter, where one by one, my children unload their individual baskets while I stand just behind them doing the mental math that most certainly will bring me to a hefty grand total.

Nevertheless, it's not the cost of the supplies I'm really focused on but how excited my children are to get them. New folders, new pens, a new lunch box all mean a fresh start, a new adventure.

In the months to come, my youngest daughter will tackle multiplication tables while her older sister tackles first-year French; my middle school son will learn to organize his homework for five teachers while my eldest daughter juggles the demands of her junior year, a time when the stakes are high and the pressure to perform is nearly palpable.

My little band of shoppers carries the booty to the van, and we're not even out of the parking lot before one of them starts opening a package of new pens.

It's just a matter of time before those pens and the sheets of loose leaf become an essay on Greek mythology or a poem about the Holocaust, before the markers decorate a poster about photosynthesis or a book report on Reggie Jackson. Everything in those plastic bags will allow the possibility of a lesson learned, a skill mastered, a perspective gained, a point of view explored.

Before we know it, we'll be back for more, wondering how the last year flew past us so quickly and what the next will hold.

Am I excited? Maybe just a little.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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