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Supplies and Demands
A lot has changed since my first child entered school in 1992. Buying school supplies, for example, has become more complicated than a TI graphing calculator, which is now an essential supply that costs 10-to-the-second power. At that price, it should graph, play movies and julienne fries.

I suspect that school teachers and office suppliers are in this together, creating an industry that now sells binders with options like flap back, view, economy and heavy duty that come in half-inch increments and run $20 a pop. My binder spending limit is 5 bucks, mainly because nothing is ever bound in my son's binder. It's less of a 3-ring and more of a black hole.

Last weekend I spent 15 minutes debating over graph paper (3-hole, notepad, spiral, four or five square) and mechanical pencils (.5, .7, or .9 mm). In the end, I paid Staples a total of $95 ... for one student. I better get a return for my money.

At least the schools make it easy to figure out what students will need. I've seen supply lists more detailed than the one written for the Lewis and Clark expedition. In fact, schools are doing much better with sharing all sorts of vital information. Nowadays, I can find out about school closings, calendar events and lunch items via the Internet and cable. And e-mail has done away with the handwritten note that wasn't delivered until it was thoroughly pulverized by 60 pounds of books at the bottom of a backpack.

Yet with all the technological advances, there remains one sacred holdover from the days of chalkboards and ditto sheets. It’s The Packet: a 10-by-13-inch envelope for parents that is stuffed with papers to be signed, saved or tossed. The Packet has welcome letters, contact information, school bus routes, opt-out forms and PTSA information, as well as forms related to health care, dress and honor codes, school clubs, yearbook orders, school pictures, and (ironically) county policies about Going Green.

When all three of my children were in public school, I would empty all the packets on the kitchen table and stare at it all, like a child who dumped out his Halloween loot --- without the childlike anticipation, glee and eventual eye-glazing sugar rush.

I always faced up to the inevitable, however, and processed the forms assembly-line style. I would end up with red eyes from reading documents and writer's cramp from filling out forms. I'd feel social anxiety trying to come up with four emergency contact names and debtor's remorse from writing checks.

There is only one thing I dread more than The back-to-school Packet: my children going back to school. My friend Donna, who shares this angst when her children start school, calls it separation anxiety.

Don't get me wrong -- when my children were little, I enjoyed peace and productivity while they were gone. And when my youngest entered high school, I enjoyed the freedom to pursue a new career. So it's not like I sob all day in front of shrines built from locks of hair, handprint crafts and photos framed in Popsicle sticks. I simply miss having my kids around.

In two years, when my youngest leaves for college, I will once again wave, teary-eyed, as he goes off to school. And for the first time since 1992, I will miss The Packet.

[September 16, 2009]

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