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The back-to-school-sale

Food For Thought

As I look at all the things advertised as necessary for the coming school year, I remember the simple list of supplies needed for school during the 1940s when I was in elementary school. Up until third grade, about all that was required could be bought for under a dollar. A box of at least 16 crayons, two No. 2 pencils with erasers, and a tablet of lined paper.
We were required to have a clean handkerchief every day– and that was checked out each morning, during “inspection,” when we lined up to show we had clean hands, tidy hair, apparently recently-brushed teeth, and the requisite handkerchief– now replaced by a box of tissues. Even then, the box of tissues might have fit into that dollar estimate at ‘40s prices, if you didn’t go for the big box of 64 crayons.
The crayons were the most important of the lot, in my young estimation. They represented, not only the pigments necessary for the pictorial masterpieces I might potentially produce, but the means to bring to life those mimeograph pictures of pilgrims and Indians that would soon be adorning the bulletin board, the paper flags and maps of the United States that we would color to help us remember basic facts about our nation. They would add color and life to pictures of policemen, mail carriers, soldiers and sailors, nurses, firemen and other “helpers” we would learn to recognize by their uniforms. And help us learn about buses, taxis, airplanes, trains and steamships as we gained basic knowledge about transportation and its importance in our lives.
What I looked upon as art classes were more often activities designed to teach us things the school system considered more important than art. While we may have learned the definition of the words “profile” and “silhouette” while laboring over the black and white cutouts of Lincoln and Washington, these projects were classified as American History. And, even the white chalk on blue construction paper drawings of snowy landscapes were aimed at teaching us to follow directions, as I learned one winter day in third grade. Having observed that even the heaviest snowfall that accumulated on the boughs of the evergreen trees behind our garden did not completely cover the green needles of the trees, I surreptitiously fished out my green crayon and added touches of green to the trees in my picture, only to learn later my drawing would not be displayed with the others during the annual Parents’ Night because I had failed to follow directions. So much for creativity.
One of the things that seems essential to today’s school supply lists is the backpack. Kids do haul a lot of things to and from school these days– a lot more than we did. About the only things I remember taking home from school on a regular basis were corrected worksheets, lists of spelling words to study and other schoolwork that had been corrected, recorded and returned because the teacher no longer wanted to store them. Most kids tossed those things in the wastebasket, not being worth the trouble to carry home, but my parents seemed pleased for the chance to see what I’d accomplished and the grades that had been assigned to my efforts. Not that I rushed breathlessly home to proudly present them to my parents, they were more likely folded several times to fit into a pocket, only to be discovered by my mother on laundry day. We were not allowed to take textbooks home from school, and books checked out of the school library were to be kept in our desks to be read during specified “free reading” times. We would not have had any real use for backpacks, or even book-bags. In fact, the closest thing would have been the rucksacks used by Boy Scouts and serious hikers– not in any way considered school supplies.
In my day, we spent the whole day in our homeroom with one teacher except for the very rare visits from the music and physical education teachers. There were two elementary schools in our town, each included grades K-5, and music and physical education were not offered in kindergarten. There were at least two classrooms for each grade in both of the schools, and some grades had three rooms. That made a minimum of 20 classrooms for each of the specialty teachers to visit on a rotating schedule, so we didn’t enjoy classes in music or sports more than once a month. Most of today’s schools have specialists in teaching art, as well as music and physical education, and these three are referred to as “specials” because they require teachers specially trained to teach them. Art classes require a great deal more consumable materials than any other subject, so it is obvious why so many schools were late in including art in the curriculum.