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Supplies and demand

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The year of the gel pens was the turning point for me. That was the year my feeble argument, "You can only write with one pen at a time," was met with an all-knowing, all-worldly and all-confident smile, "So?"

Most pen packages came in nice little boxes of four or six. The Milky Gels, Hybrid Gel Rollers and Gelly Rolls came in gorgeous rainbow cascade bundles of 12 and 16. That's when I really got on board with the whole back-to-school movement. There is some room for negotiation with back-to-school purchases, but mostly you want your child to hit school that first day ready and confident. If a few extra, cool new pens tip the balance, then toss them in the red shopping cart.

I remember my mother showing me how to cover all my school books in brown paper grocery bags to keep them clean. We would do some fancy folding and cutting to protect the spine and then I would very neatly relabel each textbook as if they were being placed in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

Back to school is much looser now. There's a lot more stuff. Entire industries now treat it like Christmas, with glossy ads and checklists. A new dresser every year? New wall-to-wall carpeting? Uh, will they fit in a backpack?

Those annual walks down the aisles of Staples with my kids are now eager, fun, anticipatory times. My "Don't we have some folders like those leftover from last year?" has given way to "How many do you need? How about a new calendar?"

A messy shelf next to my desk at home is a tornado of leftover notebook paper, Post-Its, gluesticks, pads of graph paper, multi-colored file cards and three-ring binders. Both girls "shop it" in September, then we choose what to give away. The supplies that mark the transitions are my favorites. For years we turned old shoeboxes into art boxes, colorful cornucopias of creative opportunity. I'd have to admit those days of chalk, small scissors, crayons and colored pencils are long gone. It wasn't that hard to part with the family history documented in dog-eared boxes of dried-out Crayola markers. The reds and blues were already gone anyway.

Gone too are the Disney lunchboxes. Replaced, curiously enough, by those generic white plastic bags from the local grocery store. That transition deserves some sociological study. But that epic gel pen collection? It's Ziplocked for eternity in a drawer in an unknown location.

The best, most original, most personal writing kids do now is impermanent, online, for MySpace, Facebook and IM, gleeful spurts of honesty and angst. All those unicorn and My Little Pony stickered journals and school diaries of the elementary years are now even more cherished artifacts.

Last week, we went through the recycle pile and discarded several bags of three-ring binders. They had seen better days, but they still worked. We boxed them up and took them to a busy street in town. I put a sign on the box, "Free school supplies," and left them on the corner.

They were all gone by lunchtime.

Four days later, my older daughter and I were walking down the same street. An over-friendly guy with a big smile rushed up to us, his arms loaded with colorful ware. "Hey folks, do you need some school supplies? Two dollars a notebook." We passed on the opportunity, gave him a little background on his inventory. And hoped that at some point in the supply chain, they would trickle down to a neighborhood backpack on the way back to school.

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