COLUMN - Crayon counting and other memories

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Our coverage this year of United Way’s Stuff the Bus brought back memories for me of school supplies and the first day of school. It’s funny how those images, perhaps seared into brain cells by excitement, apprehension and dread, are so easily recalled each year as we witness others doing what we did so many years ago. This column about school supplies was first written a decade ago and may stir your own back-to-school days memories.

I set out to buy a few pens last week – the new kind with the gel ink inside that lets me jot down the words of politicians and police officers without missing a verb.

I found what I was looking for, but not before being sidetracked by memories of my grade-school days conjured up by an aisle packed with school supplies.

From kindergartners to undergrads, every student needs his or her share of pens, folders and tablets. For companies selling the stuff, back-to-school time becomes Christmas.

For someone without any kids and who uses little more than pens, Post-It notes and paper, the journey through an aisle lined with glue, scissors and crayons was eye-opening. I saw two teenage girls sorting through folders of varying sizes, colors and cover designs. I suspect style was more of a deciding factor than functionality.

I think students today are more organized than a generation ago. Even grade-school kids who sit at the same desk all day keep their stuff organized – at least they do whenever I visit a classroom.

That wasn’t always the case when I was a grade-schooler more than 25 years ago. We didn’t have Trapper Keepers and I’m not sure how many of us would have used them if they were around. I was reasonably neat, but others weren’t. A boy next to me kept the storage space under his desk so crammed with junk, he eventually stopped using it. In fact, the only thing he would put in there were cookies he smuggled from the cafeteria.

I imagined generations of schoolhouse mice living it up in the back recesses of his desk, dining on chocolate-chip and sugar cookies.

One day, our teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, walked by and noticed the mess. She made him spend recess cleaning his desk. I don’t remember him finding any mice.

Judging by what’s being sold this year, crayons still rank high on most back-to-school supply lists. As a third-grader, I envied the giant box of 64 Crayolas a couple of my well-to-do classmates unpacked on the first day of class. Most of the rest of us had boxes of only 24 crayons. I was never an artist, but I longed to doodle in the exotic shades of blue or red the larger selection offered. The big box also had a neat crayon sharpener.

In first grade, our class made birthday cards for each of our classmates. On one such occasion, a classmate whose parents had bought him a box of only 24 crayons decided he was going to sharpen his crayons in the pencil sharpener. He popped off the metal cover, stuck the crayon in and started cranking. All he ended up doing was gumming up the sharpener and moving up on the teacher’s list of students she wanted to strangle. Today, crayon companies still offer big 64-count boxes. But kids also have their choice of colored pencils and markers students didn’t have access to a when I was in school. Being a kid today has its perks.

Something that has changed is how students tote their lunches to school. Most kids today carry their noon meal in insulated totes. Not so when I was in grade school. Then, youngsters carried tin boxes emblazoned with their favorite television show or comic-book hero.

During my grade-school career, I remember Superman, Scooby Doo and Wonder Woman were popular lunch-box characters. I dined on cafeteria food as a kid and remember rolling my eyes many times over a lunch of lima beans and a hot dog while two classmates argued who would win if Superman and Batman parted ways and turned on one another.

A few years later, some of the same fellows traded up to new Dukes of Hazard lunch boxes.

I guess it was easier to study fractions knowing Daisy Duke was guarding your peanut-butter and jelly sandwich.