The Box of Awesome

I’ve learned a few things since my kids have been in school for … well, I guess Abby is going on 14 years now if you count preschool … and one of those things is this:

As soon as school is out, you get those leftover supplies stored in one place.

Box of Awesome with its 2015-2016 school year offerings.

Box of Awesome with its 2015-2016 school year offerings.

For us, that place is The Box of Awesome. (Yes, it has an official title. I like names. Just ask my iPod, Jane Austen.) It’s a sturdy box I inherited from my cousin-in-law Brandi (hi, Brandi!) and it’s large enough to hold all manner of folder, binder, pencil and the random bits of a school year past.

And now that the girls are older, I can just say, Box of Awesome on the table, and it magically gets filled! That’s one thing about older kids, breakdown aside: There is something to be said for self-sufficiency.

Anyway, when I started the Box of Awesome a few years ago, I had this dream that school lists would come out and at least half of what we’d need would be right there.

That’s not exactly how it has ended up working.

I feel a rant coming on, and I’m going to rein it in, you guys, because none of us have that kind of time, but COME ON! Why are we expected to buy all new stuff every single year when perfectly usable old stuff always comes home? And not only that, why is it that different stuff is required, basically negating the ability to reuse what IS sent home the previous year?


It’s worse in elementary school, I think, but I went nuts Abby’s freshman year when a science teacher required a certain binder on his syllabus and then THEY NEVER USED THAT BINDER EVEN ONCE ALL YEAR.

Ahem, sorry. Still bitter, I guess.

Johanna and her required third grade "three inch blades." I got the size right, but not the brand. Sometimes we can only rebel in small ways.

Johanna and her required third grade “three inch blades.” I got the size right, but not the brand. Sometimes we can only rebel in small ways.

Kind of forgot where I was going with this, oh, right, anyway, so the box isn’t exactly used the way I thought it would be — that first year we employed it, Johanna could reuse all of four things out of a list of like 25. So there went my dream. Still, it comes in handy for projects and art journals at home, and as the girls get older (especially in high school, unused freshman binder aside), the less supplies they seem to need, which means the chance that something can be reused goes up. Looking into the box with this year’s offerings, I’m feeling almost hopeful — we have some really nice folders, one sort of thrashed binder, a binder sleeve and a calculator (surely Johanna won’t need more than a basic calculator in sixth grade?).

Still, back-to-school is going to be interesting, trying to outfit these girls while keeping the project in mind. I guess we just look for recycled notebooks … and maybe research environmentally friendly pens and pencils? Any suggestions are welcome — it will probably take me all summer to figure this out.

Bonus story: When Johanna was in third grade, her supply list contained specific brands, including scissors — with a specific size to boot. I just sent her with her second grade scissors. It’s not like they wear out. But the teacher went through each kid’s list with them on the first day, and told Johanna she needed new scissors. My mom is a minimalist, Jo said, and the teacher was just like, You need THESE scissors.

I’m willing to fight, you guys, but wow, sometimes it’s just so dang hard.

Next up: Bea Johnson’s All-Purpose Balm. On Friday again, sorry, summertime.

22 Responses to The Box of Awesome

  1. I rarely comment, but I just HAD to here – I can’t believe teachers would require something so specific! I totally get your point (and I’m an ESL teacher…). As a child, I remember keeping all my supplies. By third grade I ended up with such a cool collection of colored pencils that my classmates would all come and borrow from me! You’re right – why should we buy everything new every year? Things like rules, scissors, and even colored pencils can last a very long time! And re the teacher who required the binder then never made the students use it – that would drive me nuts. As a teacher I’d make it a point to actually use the books we made our students buy. I know some teachers think badly of those of us who use textbooks, but there’s ways and ways of using a textbook, and I’ve heard enough complaints from students who had to buy workbooks and stuff and didn’t use even a third of the pages! Schools can be real waste-producers if we’re not careful, don’t you think?

    • Our elementary school has three classrooms per grade, so I’m not sure if it was all of the third grade teachers who came up with the list, or just one and everyone went along with it, or what. But yeah, it was maddening — it took a few stops to get exactly everything required that year.

      I tell you this, though: Johanna is going to use those scissors for the rest of her life! 🙂

  2. I understand the frustration of school supplies. I have decided to ignore the lists and send the kids with what they will use. One of the kids has some of my pencil crayons from my elementary days in the 70s.

    I would also be miffed that a specific brand “needed” to be purchased. It just creates waste.

    I sometimes send the exess supplies to the school (ask in advance if okay). The teachers can the hand out items to those students whose families cannot afford new or for those who forget their pencil case. Every time, the teachers have been very appreciative.

    • “I sometimes send the exess supplies to the school (ask in advance if okay). The teachers can the hand out items to those students whose families cannot afford new or for those who forget their pencil case. Every time, the teachers have been very appreciative.”

      This is a fantastic idea. Wholeheartedly second this.

  3. I love school/office supplies, but I hate school supply lists. My son isn’t old enough for them yet, but I was a teacher for a short while.

    Fun fact, the school I worked for set the supply lists by grade with no input from individual teachers. So, not only did my (predominantly low income) students have to buy a whole bunch of brand new supplies, but I had to figure out how the hell to use them so they wouldn’t go to waste. Bonus fun, the lists usually didn’t contain stuff they did need, so I ended up paying for it myself.

    • WHAT!? That makes zero sense not to have teacher input on supplies! Good for you for trying to find ways to use everything — but boo that you had to supplement with your own income. That’s just maddening!

      • The first year I thought it was because I was new, but, no, it happened again the next year. Maybe your crazy scissors lady was new and had been told she had to enforce the list (or maybe she was just crazy, ’cause that story is flabbergasting).

        It is incredibly common for teachers to supplement school supplies with their own income. There’s actually a special tax deduction because it’s so common. The tax deduction is for up to $250 of supplies (or was when I was teaching), the NEA says average teacher out-of-pocket cost is a couple thousand a year, industry groups say average is a few hundred. I suspect it’s somewhere in the high hundreds on average.

        Teaching was interesting from a minimalist/simplicity perspective. It teaches you to be creative with how you use things, but it’s also so hard not to get overwhelmed with stuff. On the plus side, I still use supplies that I bought as a teacher years ago.

        • It was actually her last year before retirement, and she was pretty awesome, scissors aside — the kids loved her and she was a fantastic teacher (she was the first one to really encourage Johanna’s drawing and writing, for example, and still talks to Jo about that kind of thing when we see her around town). I have no idea why scissors were such a big deal. It IS flabbergasting, but she was great. 🙂

          I’ve heard teachers spend a lot out of pocket … and I bet it was interesting teaching with a minimalist perspective. I imagine out of pocket expenses would double if the kids weren’t even coming to school with the right supplies to begin with. I’m still scratching my head over that list situation!

          • Hooray for good teachers! Even if they are quirky about scissors. I have to believe there must have been a reason. At least they’re good scissors 😉

  4. I hate back to school shopping! Out here the schools start at different times (a LOT of different districts all have their own schedules) so by the time school starts the stores are getting pretty bare. So I have to shop before school starts, hoping to get the things they’ll need. After school starts I get a list from the teachers, and inevitably I need to go out THAT NIGHT to get something I didn’t forsee. Grrr.

    And I feel your pain on the unused binder. It can come live with our Special Science Notebook Dividers that were never used.

    My kids use the same lunchbags, binders and backpacks until they are broken. Pencils are reused and replaced when they are lost/used up. If anyone gives them grief on not having new or the “right” brand, I will teach them your daughter’s “My mom’s a minimalist” line. 🙂

    • Except the line didn’t work and we still had to get the scissors! At least we just have one school district and all the schools come out with lists mid-July. No last-minute shopping. Well, not on purpose. My stance has always been no talk of back to school until the week before. You’d think my kids would appreciate my attempts to prolong summer, and yet they do not. 😉

  5. Yes I agree it is infuriating that schools continually upgrade every year, What drives me super crazy is when I spend money on text books or work books and they are barely used. I actually just stopped buying the workbooks and apart from once or twice a year when they need them it is not a problem. And on those occasions they just copy the work into their writing books. I also jut didn’t buy some ebooks and that hasn’t been a problem either. I have an enormous pile of text books (hate to think how much wasted money that is) and I am hoping I can find some organisation to donate them to.
    Loving your posts by the way! Jenni (Australia)

    • A) That is awesome that you have taken a stand and don’t buy those things. B) That’s a great idea for a post — who takes used textbooks? (Amazon? Where do the kids buy their books these days anyway?) C) Thank you — and thanks for commenting!

  6. I can so relate to this! My son just finished 2nd grade and at least two of his school years, maybe all 3, we had to buy multiple composition notebooks…only to have him bring them home at the end of the year with maybe 5 pages used in each. So, do I have to buy new notebooks for next year? I am seriously tempted to just tear out the used pages and send those back in for 3rd grade!

  7. HI all.

    I have a two and a half year old, so not school age yet but am already prepared to fight!

    I hear so manymanymany complaints about these back-to-school lists! (Is it because I frequent non-consumer and minimalist content? hummm…) Anyway. I don’t understand how these lists continue year after year. I hear sososo many parents complain!

    And if I may ask….if you had simply refused to buy the scissors, what would have happened? I’m genuinely curious. Would your daughter gotten short-shifted somewhere down the line?

    Also, regarding buying notebooks/pens…I see all sorts of stuff like that at thrift stores. I would also throw out a note to all my neighbors/friends/co-workers. If you asked my community for two spiral bound notebooks, college-ruled with 80 sheets each and three blue pens, two black and one red….you’d get it in a day (and some of it from me!)

    Cheers to you… and again…. THOROUGHLY enjoying your simple year.

    • Thank you! I appreciate the nice words.

      Nothing would have happened had I not bought new scissors — I could have spoken to the teacher and told her my side, although that would have meant having to hear her side too. 😉 Or I could have kept sending the scissors back with Jo every time they came home.

      But in the end, I decided it was just easier to buy new scissors than make a big deal about it. I’m not against buying things — I would just rather not. In all probability, I would have had to purchase “older kid” scissors for Johanna eventually anyway. As it’s worked out, she’s used those scissors all through third, fourth and fifth grades, and they’re still going strong. She’ll be able to use them now in middle school, and they’ll be a good size for high school too.

      We don’t have a thrift shop like Goodwill here … we do have a couple of secondhand clothing stores, but that’s about it. I hadn’t thought about asking around, though. Good idea!

  8. When my oldest was in second grade, his grandfather got him a whole box of #2 pencils with his name embossed on them. He picked out his favorite colors to take the required 12 to school. The teacher collected everyone’s pencils and put them all in a huge box, and when someone needed a pencil they were to take whichever one they wanted out of the box. I BEGGED her to let me switch out my son’s, but she said no, and we never got them back. I wondered how many other kids had picked out special pencils, and had their enthusiasm doused with a bucket of mean. Special name for that woman. And guess what? GASP! Our family actually reuses backpacks! My boys are into it, and they had the same perfectly fine ones for two or three years. But most parents, including the ones of kids for whom the community collects school supplies every year, feel it is imperative to have a brand new backpack every.single.year. Snobbery, I tell ya, as well as wastefulness.

  9. Pingback: Back to school shopping | The Simple Year

Tell me, tell me...