A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Beth Underwood: As school supply lists grow each year, the magic of the basics is still undeniable

A recent trip to a superstore found me lamenting the outlandish school supply lists that students are given at the beginning of a new year.

The shortlist is typically a 24-pack of Ticonderoga pencils (that’s right, Ticonderoga, please), 12 washable markers, 2 jumbo bottles of hand sanitizer, a 12-count pack of colored pencils, six packs of wide-ruled paper, several three-inch three-ring binders, and a partridge in a pear tree. Ok, maybe not the partridge, but surely you see my point.

And while we’re at it, who needs a three-inch binder, anyway? Have you seen the size of those things? Maybe you’d need one if you’re re-writing War and Peace, or printing out the entire series transcript for Little House on the Prairie, but neither of those scenarios is likely in the third grade. Plus, once you get a couple of those three-inch three-ring binders into a backpack, you’ll need a second backpack for supplies, and a third for books. It’s time we all agree. No one needs a three-inch three-ring binder. And may I say lucky for us, they aren’t on most high school supply lists.

But I digress.

I suppose school supply lists are just another example of how far we’ve come — and how much things have changed.

Take my year in first grade, for example. I can recall having a red and green plaid satchel along with a little yellow bus cutout that fastened to my shirt with a safety pin. “Bus No. 40” was written on it, lest no one (including myself) knew what bus I needed to ride.

I also had a box of eight jumbo crayons.

Oh, sure. There’s no denying a 64-pack of Crayolas is a coveted rite-of-passage — it’s tough to beat that built-in sharpener. But that first box of eight jumbos — that’s where the magic’s at.

It’s how I learned to write my name and draw stick figures. It’s how I learned to stay in the lines and mix those eight basic colors to make eight more. Those eight jumbo crayons helped me learn to express my emotions by using colors and figures that corresponded with my moods. Even to this day, I like to categorize handwritten notes and plans for projects, including editing work, by using various colors, all of which can be traced back to that first box of crayons.

If you ask me, those first jumbo crayons taught me not only how to color, but why I needed to. They remind me how important little details can be, like staying in the lines. They also reminded me that sometimes lines are meant to be crossed.

Moreover, those eight little colors taught me to dream bigger than I believed possible. If you ask me, that’s a lot of magic. And I don’t know of any three-ring binders capable of competing with that.

Beth Underwood is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. She shares stories of everyday life that entertain, inspire, and encourage others. Her books include Gravity, a narrative nonfiction account of a small group of Tennessee National Guardsmen, and Talk Bourbon to Me, a lighthearted look at Kentucky’s native spirit. Drop her a line at beth@bethwrightunderwood.com, or visit her website at bethwrightunderwood.com.

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