Thursday, August 16, 2012

School Supplies

Pre-packaged school supply "kits". Exactly the items, sizes, brands that each teacher wants. Delivered right to a child's desk on the first day of school. No running from store to store. No stores running out of a coveted item. Sounds like a working mom's dream, right?

I severely dislike the pre-packaged school supply kits. (Hate is a strong word).

Both schools that our kids have attended have offered them. The previous school tried at first to talk up the idea as supporting a local business, and a time saver, and all that.  By last year they went so far as to not handing out school supply lists--just a link to a website (and if you wanted to "roll your own" you had to decipher the third-party company's cryptic descriptions of the items in the kit).  New year, new school, same routine. Well, they did provide us with a list (using fully spelled out words instead of product codes). Though, as we found out today, there were one or two items left off the list that came in the pre-assembled pack.

But I'm still not buying.

Call me crazy (maybe). Call me stingy (frequently).  Call me a control freak (uh...)

I like shopping for my kids' school supplies. When the giant bins of folders and crayons and glue sticks go up in the big box stores, I rub my hands together with glee. Hey, shopping is fun.

But it's more than that. Those kits are not a good deal. At both schools, the packaged kit costs about double what I spend buying the exact same items from a local big box store. For the last school, several of the items in the kits didn't need to be replaced every year. Scissors, rulers, pencil cases (mileage may vary on that one). Even some of the heavy-duty plastic folders were in like-new shape at the end of the year--the ones that stayed in the classroom and out of the backpack.

I guess when you try to work the whole "support local cottage industry" angle, it sounds very politically correct to pay up. But it is NOT local business if they have to ship the kits from a warehouse in another state.

I know that big box stores sell their packs of crayons for a quarter and pocket folders for a dime at back-to-school-time in order to drive foot traffic to the stores to buy higher-priced goods like clothes and shoes. It's a loss leader, designed to make a buck elsewhere and buy customer loyalty. 

But I can buy half a dozen packs of crayons at their loss (and throw a few in the "Books and Backpacks" charity bin at work, or donate them to the scout troop, or just keep them on hand for rainy days and the middle of winter when the school demands a replacement and the stores are once again charging $2.79).

I don't need a personal shopper to go dig through the back-to-school-sale aisles, I don't need to pay shipping costs to get pencils from the store to the school, and I don't like having to pay a premium for those services. Maybe next I should pay someone to eat some chocolate for me. (Ok, shopping for school supplies isn't that fun, but still...maybe if the school supply kits would slip me an extra pack of graph paper to doodle on, or a pretty purple notebook for scribbling notes to myself, or one of the other little perks of doing my own shopping then I wouldn't feel so grumpy about it).

I would feel better about the price of the school supply kits if 1) the school themselves, or the PTA or parent volunteers were assembling them as a fundraiser for the school or 2) The cost of the kit was similar to what I would spend at the big box store. After all, the big (and not terribly local) school supply kit companies should be buying crayons and pencils by the pallet at a serious discount, so they ought to be less than $2.79 a pack.

Better yet, just hide the cost of the school supplies in the tuition fees (we're only talking $25-40 at the elementary school level--my kids go to a parish school, so I already pay tuition), and quit sending home a list at all. Then the schools can support whatever business they want to with their dollars, choose whatever supplies they prefer, and no kid shows up at school with 10 markers when they should have 8, or, worse, with none.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The First Days

I find myself facing the new school year with a bit of relief for the first time in four years. Although my daughter's former school had much to recommend it, there was a certain unrealistically hight level of expectation to which we as parents were held.

The problem may be all in my head (no doubut it was at least partly in my head). But a simple set of rules was never quite enough--the rules were rigidly, strictly enforced. And a simple call for volunteers was never enough. There was constant pressure, reminder emails, surveys, committees that needed help. And nor was a hefty tuition payment sufficient. No, there were as many phone calls and emails and hand-written letters and postcards all asking for donations. The uniforms were policed to the level where there were exactly two specific styles of shoes in the whole school: one for the girls, one for the boys. We were expected to label every pencil, every marker, every crayon in the box of school supplies. And it was rare that a nightly homework assignment came home that did not require an equal amount of active participation from the parent as well the child.

It was a lot of work. The school prides itself on the level of achievement of its pupils. No doubt. Any kid with the sheer amount of resources and energy behind them cannot help but succeed. (At least until they are set free and required to achieve their own goals using only their own energy and resources).

I don't expect parenthood to be easy. And I don't expect our new school to be lax where they need to be strict. They still have uniforms, they still need volunteers, there will still be hopeful requests for donations (though so far I have seen more information on applying for scholarships than on demands to fund them). There will still be homework that will still require our help.

But I hope there will also be some breathing room. Some expectation that we as parents have multiple responsibilities, and those responsibilities are not all focused on our children. We have jobs and other commitments too. Our money only goes so far. Our label makers only print so fast. And our children need to learn to keep track of their crayons without relying on a nametag. And to be able to choose from an appropriate set of choices when getting dressed in the morning, instead of always donning the one prescribed option.