Mention the words “school supplies” to a group of grown-ups, and no matter what their age, education level or life experience, they’re likely to wax nostalgic in a visceral way.
Baby boomer Amy Bartle of Lawrence remembers her elementary school gear in vivid detail:
“I kept my supplies in a cigar box,” she says. “I loved the smell of the paste that came in a brown jar. The lid had a big Popsicle stick-shaped thing on it that the paste adhered to. That glue probably causes cancer. The classroom had thick tempera paints that you added water to. I also loved the mimeograph sheets. They smelled so good. Kind of a strong chemical smell, but good. And, they were warm right off the copy machine.
“I hated the fat pencils in first grade,” she adds. “I felt like a baby because the second-graders had skinny pencils. I couldn’t wait to get to second grade to get the skinnier No. 2 pencils!”
Bartle’s contemporaries are equally enthusiastic, although Cynthia Bailey has a different take on the pencils:
“I loved the smell of the Big Chief and the really big pencils you had in first and second grade,” she says. “I always loved the paint box, too, but only before you used them the first time. After that, they were all ‘yucky.’”
For Sue Hack of Lawrence, it was all about Crayolas.
“It was that new box of crayons — hopefully, the package with the sharpener built in,” she says. “They had the smell of a new school year.”
“There was something very alluring about a ‘virgin’ notebook,” says Jackie Bunnell, another boomer.
“No. 2 pencils. They smelled so good,” says boomer Judith Roitman who, not surprisingly, became a Kansas University math professor.
Malissa Martin-Wilke, who attended grade school in the mid-1960s, loved it all.
“Crisp new paper, freshly sharpened pencils,” she says. “And, my goodness, my first cartridge ink pen! I was quite proud of the sloppy blue ink stains on my fingers. Don’t even get me started on the new clothes. At the start of every school year, the world was ripe and heavy with tantalizing possibilities.”
Eventually, Big Chief tablets, mimeographed worksheets and denim-covered three-ring binders went the way of black and white televisions, and the next generation of school supplies was born.
“My favorite was the Trapper Keeper,” says Tam Gordon of Lawrence. “Especially when they had themed ones with matching folders.”
“The Trapper Keeper was the ultimate beginning-of-the-year organizer,” says Alison Lungstrum. “As this was the early ’90s, it was usually either a neon-geometric shape theme, or a New Kids on the Block-type band. I loved to bring it home, label all of the folders inside with different subjects, and have everything ready to go in a completely organized fashion for the coming school year. Then, I would lay out all of the school supplies on the floor and bask in the glory of fresh markers, pencils, erasers, scissors and glue.”
Jai Nitz, 34, local comic book author, loved his old supplies so much, he still uses them.
“Literally, on my desk at this moment, I have a school folder of mine from 1981,” Nitz says. “It’s a three-ring binder, and it has all these great old NFL stickers on it like the Houston Oilers, Los Angeles Rams, St. Louis Cardinals, the old Denver and Patriots logos, and on and on. I’ve had the folder forever, and I still use it.”
Nitz says, in his day, supplies were plain by today’s standards.
“The ubiquitousness of licensed property did not exist on Trapper Keepers, necessarily. You had to decorate them yourself with stickers, because they were just a basic notebook,” he says.
“Today, I can go and get my kids any form of cartoon or kids’ programming. I can get a notebook of it anywhere. Whereas, for me, it was blue, green or yellow.”
No matter which generation you belonged to, the all-important lunchbox choice seemed to speak volumes about who you were as a person.
“I had a white metal lunch box with the state flower on it — the camellia — since I was in Alabama,” Bartle says.
“My lunch box was Roy Rogers.” Bailey says. “I wish I had it now. But my mom always put this ‘fancy’ linen place mat and napkin in it, and I was so embarrassed.”
Nitz, whose family had moved to Georgia in time for him to enter first grade, says his lunchbox gave him away as an outsider.
“Two things happened that year. First, the University of Georgia won the national championship in football. That was like Lawrence must have been in ’88,” he explains. “The other thing was ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ was on TV. That might as well have been a religion. There were people who weren’t into stock car racing who welded their doors shut. So everybody had all these ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ lunchboxes and, if it wasn’t that, it was a Georgia Bulldogs something.”
So, what did Nitz carry to school under his arm?
“I had a ‘Sesame Street’ lunchbox,” he laughs. “And, in retrospect, I like Jim Henson and I like ‘Sesame Street,’ even as an adult, far more than I liked ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’”