Staying ahead of back-to-school rules can be a real education

Back-to-school time. When I was a kid, mom would take me to the general store, down the dirt road, to buy school supplies. All I needed was a slate, some chalk and an old flour sack to carry my lunch in.

One year I got a Robin Hood-themed flour sack, with a matching Civil War-era canteen for my milk.

Every morning mom would milk the goat straight into my canteen. (She was a great shot.) There's nothing like fresh milk, right out of the goat. I only got explosive diarrhea twice … that I can remember. Mom says I was delirious the other times.

Which reminds me: we each had to bring our own Sears catalog, too. For the outhouse.

Ah, memories of taking my own kids back-to-school shopping; each one had a list of required supplies for the upcoming year, which they brought home with them on the last day of school in June. They always "lost" the list, but parents could pick one up at the school office. Parents are sneaky that way.

We shopped in early August — at least, after "the incident" in an aisle at the big-box store. I'd had to wrestle a woman twice my size to the ground for the last plastic ruler. "But I wanted blue!" cried Heather after I won.

Taking three kids shopping for school supplies against their will is like sticking yourself in the eye with a fuzzy pencil-topper over and over again.

And it has to be choreographed as precisely as a Busby Berkeley musical. If you miss a beat, you'll be checking off one kid's list while another is bored and the third is thirsty. It reminded me of the guy on The Ed Sullivan Show, spinning plates on sticks while the orchestra played "The Saber Dance."

One year I went shopping by myself, lists in hand. Unfortunately, Josh, age 16, wasn't OK with a 100-count carton of Knight Rider pocket-folders. He wouldn't touch them, much less be seen in school with one. So I've been using them up ever since. Only 47 to go. (Josh is 38 now.)

Back-to-school clothes shopping had its pitfalls, too — especially when choosing T-shirts with slogans or pictures of rock bands. All shirts had to be school-acceptable, and it varied by school.

What might earn the high-school boy a wry smile and a head-shake from the principal could get the middle-schooler ordered to turn his shirt inside out and cause the elementary school to call Child Protective Services on me.

As God is my witness, I'll never send a fourth-grade girl to school in a "Judas Priest" T-shirt again. No matter how much she begs.

Then there was the Trapper Keeper, all the rage when Zeb was in middle school. Zeb had to have one. Only problem? They were banned at his school. They wanted the students to learn organization by themselves, the old-fashioned way.

So Zeb carried around a blue canvas binder with 7,000 loose papers sticking out in every direction. Mission accomplished, I'd say.

Once in a while they'd try to put one over on me. Like the time 5-year-old Heather said, "Look, Mommy, there's one more thing on my list: a pony." She held out the crumpled, sweaty ditto sheet. "Right there," she said, pointing.

"That is clearly your handwriting, my darling," I noted. "I can tell, because it's written in crayon. And the 'p' is backward."

Ah, for the days of slate and chalk. I really miss that nice, warm goat's milk, too. And riding to school on a dinosaur.

Email Cathy Drinkwater Better at

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