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Jack Knox: Lessons learned from school-supply overload

Sep 06 2012

'We need you to uncover the truth on school supply lists," the mother's message began. "How can a second grader need 36 pencils, three bottle of glue and two glue sticks?"

Glad to help, mom. Jack Knox will answer any question with certainty, if not accuracy.

First, your child needs two glue sticks because they contain so little adhesive these days that one barely lasts through a single art project.

The three bottles of glue are to help the teacher take the edge off her day.

The 36 pencils are part of the provincial government's Mountain Pine Beetle Action Plan, the idea being to create a market for insect-killed wood from the Interior.

Well, no, but that explanation makes as much sense as the math: There are 186 days in the school year, which translates to a pencilconsumption rate of one every 5.17 days. Even when subtracting those pencils lost following insertion in electric sharpeners and/or bodily orifices ("Look at me, I'm a walrus!"), the idea that one small child can scribble through that much graphite defies logic.

The truth, of course, is that you are being asked to buy 36 pencils to make up for those kids who bring no pencils at all - an exercise in socialism that leaves parents stomping around the house quoting Ayn Rand.

These are the same parents who demanded tax cuts from the government, which then choked off money to school districts, who downloaded their costs on parents.

There's no shortage of stories, particularly in the U.S., of families being asked to pony up for supplies formerly purchased by the education system: paper towels, baby wipes, garbage bags, liquid soap, Ziplocs (is the teacher selling weed?), Kleenex, foaming hand sanitizer, Swiffer refills, plastic cutlery, even toilet paper. NBC News reported this week that students in Shunhe, China, had to haul their own desks and chairs from home.

Shopping lists vary from school to school, even from classroom to classroom.

Some are bare-bones, others seem excessive; a couple of years ago, an Ottawa Citizen editorial chided schools that demanded students supply everything from memory sticks to tennis balls for the legs of squeaky chairs.

No wonder Junior trudges off to school each day doubled over under a load similar to that carried by gold miners on the Trail of '98. You hitchhiked across Canada with a smaller backpack.

Not everyone can afford this. Last week, Victoria's Linda Matthews distributed school supplies through the Fair Start program at the Mustard Seed. She launched the program with her mother, Vera Webb, 15 years ago after dropping a quick $100 on school supplies at the Tillicum Zellers and wondering how poor people would handle a hit like that.

Matthews and friends distributed 540 hampers last week, down a bit from previous years. That doesn't reflect a drop in demand, she says, as much as it does the proliferation of charities doing similar work.

The Salvation Army had handed out 160 backpacks full of school supplies in Greater Victoria as of Wednesday, and expects to do many more in the next couple of weeks. Surrounded by Cedar Children and Family Services gave out maybe 850 backpacks to aboriginal kids in Victoria at an August barbecue, the first in a series of backtoschool events that helps 1,952 Vancouver Island kids get supplies.

Victoria-area school districts themselves are funnelling supplies donated through a program run by Staples, which is also partnering with the 1UP Victoria Single Parent Resource Centre. Corporate and employee groups have also contributed to the latter, which has helped 224 students this year, up from the usual 150.

That's just for the basics, not course fees, graphing calculators and whatnot.

Note that in the U.S., the National Retail Federation estimates the average parent with kids in school will spend $688 this year (up from $604 in 2011), including $129 on shoes, $246 on other clothes, $218 on electronics and $95 on school supplies themselves. Increasingly, iPads are becoming commonplace in classrooms.

Just be glad your school supply list didn't call for 36 of them.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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