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21,600 Pencils

I picked up the school supply list for my 4th grader the other day and hit the local Mart du Wal, armed with patience and my “it’s okay that you just grabbed the last purple folder with pockets and brads” smile.

Preamble: What the eff is it with the specifics of school supplies these days?  The resident 4th grader is my youngest so I’m no School Supply Virgin here.  I get that Crayola beats Rose Art every time, but now pencils must be more than just #2, they must also be Ticonderoga and latex-free.  And it MUST be a Pink Pearl eraser, not some generic pink parallelogram (not only did I remember that shape, I spelled it correctly the first time…good job Gen X education).  One year, the whole lot of us were searching for a specific glue because the teachers deemed Elmers was not good enough and yet another year, there was a shortage of yellow folders (brads AND pockets) because every school in the district required this color, it seemed.  But hey, I’m just so happy that I will never, ever, ever have to hear the words “Mom, tomorrow’s my day to bring the snack basket” again.

21,600 pencils.  #2 pencils (the only requirement, according to this year’s list).

No, I didn’t have to buy nearly 22,000 (rounding up, again high five to Gen X education) pencils.

I was required to buy 60.  Sixty.  Yes, sixty #2 pencils.

When I threw the 5 boxes of 12 pencils in the cart at the store, it didn’t register because I had put on my blinders to see nothing but grabbing the needed supplies and getting out of there as quick as possible.  I had only stopped to calculate the price between 5 boxes of 12 and 3 boxes of 24 and had determined that the 5 boxes was slightly more expensive but all 60 pencils were pre-sharpened and THAT IS WORTH ONE EXTRA DOLLAR, in my estimation (again, score one for my Gen X education on not only the calculations but also the ability to critically analyze the sharpening-60-pencils-at-home to insanity ratio).

Then last night, we sat on the floor and divided the supplies up between my two spawn.  The junior high kid’s list simply said “box of #2 pencils, latex-free” and I threw a box of 12 at him (and yes, I had purchased a 6th box for him the other day, don’t worry, I didn’t steal from the 4th grader).  And then I stacked all 5 boxes for the 4th grader and it hit me how utterly ridiculous this was.

60 pencils for my kid for the school year.

Ready to do some fun math with me?  Come on, it’ll be fun because it’s NOT Common Core Math; it’s Gen X math.  It’s a word problem, so go slowly, okay?

Spawn1 brings 60 pencils to his 4th grade homeroom, as required.  There are 30 kids in Spawn1’s homeroom, and there are 4 homerooms in his pod.  There are 3 pods of 4th grade homerooms (it’s an upper elementary with just 4th and 5th grade).  If we estimate that each homeroom has 30 kids and we assume that each spawn actually brings all 60 pencils as required by the almighty School Supply List, how many #2 pencils will be in the school just for 4th grade usage this year?

30 times 60 is 1,800 pencils per homeroom.

1,800 times 4 is 7,200 pencils per pod.

7,200 pencils times 3 is 21,600 pencils for all of 4th grade.

Let me repeat that number.  That’s twenty-one thousand, six hundred pencils for just 4th grade.  There are an estimated 360 kids in the 4th grade.  21,600 pencils.

Go ahead.  Check my math.  I did it at least four times because that seemed…wrong.

Excuse my language, but are you effing kidding me?

I loudly “mentioned” this on social media and a teacher friend piped in and said “and yet, by Christmas, there will be none.”

Again, ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME?  I’m pretty sure I’m not exaggerating when I say my son’s 4th grade, as a whole, could provide pencils to at least a dozen rural villages in a 3rd world country.

And the wheels in my head began turning as I asked “why?”

Okay, really I was asking “what the hell?”  But the “why” was implied.

Not to sound like I was born in the days of rotary phones and only 5 tv stations (oh wait…) but IN MY DAY, we brought 12 pencils and somehow made them last throughout the school year.  I seem to remember the bragging rights of being able to write with the shortest pencil, down to the metal that could no longer be sharpened.

How did we do it?  How on earth did we survive with only 12?

Here’s my theory.  And it’s just a theory, folks; it’s an untested idea that means no harm to anyone in the teaching world.

Quite a few years back, I noticed that the supply lists began also saying “do not write names on any supplies.”  I was baffled at first only to discover that school supplies, upon entering the classroom, became communal property.  All pencils were put into a bucket or coffee tin, as were crayons, rulers, markers and those special Pink Pearl erasers.  I assumed that this was for teacher ease – they stuck a canister of supplies marked “Table 1” on a shelf and they didn’t have to hear Spawn23 whine about not being able to find his scissors in his messy desk.  And I can get behind that feeling; if I was in charge of 20-30 kids each day, I’d make my life simpler too.

Then I figured out that it eased the pain for the students who didn’t bring all the supplies because either their families didn’t have money or their parents were not very good parents.  I have distinct memories of one or two kids in my grade school (you know, back when those pop-a-point pencils were considered “newfangled technology”) who consistently didn’t have needed supplies and had to share with another student.

Side note:  I was that stupidly “nice” kid that the teachers always paired those kids up with because they knew I would never deny usage of the yellow marker even though there should have been a blood contract signed on how to properly use yellow markers.

I don’t recall whether those kids felt humiliation for not having supplies; I was a kid who’s only concern was the pristine look of my yellow markers as well as the proper protocol for coloring with crayons so the tip never went flat or, broken (I just had heart palpitations over the memory of someone carelessly coloring so hard with my Cerulean Crayola that it snapped!)  But as my 3rd kid can testify, he’s been without certain supplies now and then because, simply put, he’s the 3rd kid and “had to share with so ‘n so.”  He never appeared humiliated, just disgruntled.  But it wasn’t an economic reason and I do believe the kids in poverty do feel humiliation, so I think that pooling the supplies for that reason is a valid one.

So I also understand that the 60 pencils I am buying are helping out those who cannot bring the pencils.  And I am fine with that.


And hear me out, okay?

You know why we Gen Xers could handle 12 pencils all year?  Because those were OUR pencils and we were responsible for them.  If we lost our pencils or used them up, we had to own up to it and deal with it.  If we didn’t want to admit it to the teacher, we borrowed from a friend by trading three Scratch ‘n Sniff stickers.  Even the kids who were missing supplies learned to borrow rather than go to the teacher for a solution.

My 4th grader is more likely to misplace a pencil because there are 1,799 more pencils in his classroom alone.  Why should he be responsible for that one pencil?  Plenty to go around, right?

Back when I volunteered at the schools, I was constantly hearing things like “Can I get a pencil from the big bucket?” or “You don’t have your pencil?  Go get one from the bucket then.”  I never thought much of it.

And the same goes for the yellow markers.  Why should anyone worry about coloring carefully next to the black markered area, lest it ruin the yellow tip, when there are 30 other yellow markers in the bucket to work with?

And we could go much deeper in our analysis of how that will affect all sorts of long term decision making.  Don’t scoff at me here; today’s decision to not look for that pencil in their desk is tomorrow’s decision to not fuss about that dent in your new car.  There are so many directions I could take this article because suddenly I’m looking at my 22 year-old spawn and thinking “Holy Apartment Fire, Batman, this is one of the many things that led you to just give me the ‘eh, it happened’ attitude about losing your stuff in the fire.”

But that is a sociological study that I just don’t have time to do because there are no effing pencil top erasers to be found in my town and now I must travel far and wide to ensure my son’s success in 4th grade.  What’s funny is that an average box of pencil top erasers includes about 12 erasers.

So, 60 pencils and only 12 pencil topper erasers.  Now, THAT’S more along the lines of Common Core math.

21,600 pencils, folks.

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