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The supply mission

Eight white erasers ... really? The back-to-school treasure hunt can be a frustrating exercise

Last weekend, as the sun beat down and my kids jumped through the sprinkler, I was stuck in the hot dining room planning my most-dreaded annual shopping expedition.

It was time to shop for back-to-school supplies.

Every year, as I look over the school-supply lists for my three oldest children, a mixture of dread and disbelief floods through me. I understand my kids need supplies, but these lists are ridiculous.

First, it's the amount of stuff required. Do my children really need eight white erasers each? Six to 10 glue sticks? Sixteen Duo-Tang covers? Two pencil cases?

There was a year the supply list called for my Grade 1 child to have 48 pencils. A teacher friend said there was no way one kid would need that many; he suspected the school was asking me to supply pencils for kids whose parents wouldn't or couldn't buy any. He told me to initial every darn pencil.

This year, each of my kids has headphones on their list, to use in the computer lab. I'm guessing it's a measure to cut down on the spread of head lice and other creepy-crawlies kids inadvertently share. But that's one item that will cost me at least $10 each.

All of this stuff costs a lot of money, spent when we're also shelling out for the one or two extracurricular activities we allow our kids to take. It makes September more financially stressful than Christmas.

My husband and I are both employed in well-paying jobs; I often wonder how the working poor handle the stress and worry of school supplies.

The cost would be easier to take if I knew all of these supplies were being put to good use. But every year, each of my children brings home supplies that were completely unused. The most common item to come back is glue sticks, which also happen to be expensive. In the past two years, two of my children have also come back with empty scrapbooks and paint boxes used once.

I don't appreciate this wasting of my hard-earned money. If it's not going to be used, don't ask me to pick it up. Schools will sometimes say teachers deviate from a school-wide list. I don't care. Give me the barebones supply list and warn me the teacher may want the other options as well.

Beyond the number of items and the cost, there's the specificity of the list.

The list doesn't just require eight Duo-Tang covers; it requires two in orange, one in red, two in royal blue, and three in navy (and none of those plastic abominations, if you please.)

The protractor must be plastic, not metal. The markers must be washable and not in neon colours. And everyone in your child's grade requires the same things, so guess how quickly navy blue Duo-Tangs and plastic protractors sell out at Wal-Mart?

I know colour-coding the scribblers is useful if you're a teacher (asking everyone to get out their blue social studies folder, for example). But the treasure hunt of finding the exact item in the exact amount, among 20 other parents doing the same thing, is crazy-making.

As a restrained libertarian, all of this uniformity bothers me. What happens if a kid shows up with the plastic folders, the neon markers, the unwashable crayons? Is it that big of a deal? Is order, ease for the teacher, and everyone being matchy-match important enough to send these exacting, stressful, expensive lists home?

I'm almost ready for this coming year. I still have to do the big shop, but I squirrelled away the unused supplies from last year, as well as the things that can be used again.

I spread them across the dining-room table that hot day last weekend, checking the items and colours against the three lists spread in front of me.

After matching and sorting, though, I still have unused items I bought for last year sitting in the storage cupboard. Their colours don't match this year's lists.

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