Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why I'm Not Complaining About My Kid's School Supply List

Act #226:  Change your attitude about school.

This week, I spent about $30 on first grade school supplies requested by my son's elementary school.  While I'm fortunate to be in a position to allocate such funds pretty comfortably, I'm well aware that there are others who aren't as fortunate, or who have multiple children, thus making such requests burdensome.  Before I even continue, I'd like to quickly acknowledge a few things:

1.  That I too question what supplies are deemed essential for learning (and whether or not paper towels and hand sanitizer should fall under that category)?

2.  That we should never stop holding accountable, those charged with disseminating public school tax dollars.

But now that I've gotten that out of the way, I'd like to offer a little discomfort.  I had the privilege of attending elementary school in two drastically different environments.  I attended kindergarten through 2nd grade in the suburbs surrounding  Chicago and 3rd-5th grades in Bangkok, Thailand.  Last week as I was shopping for school supplies at the local Meijer, I was surrounded by visibly stressed parents crowded in the narrow school supply aisles, eyes hurriedly darting back and forth between their printed lists and the remaining merchandise on the shelves.  Almost every present kid was uninvolved in the process, barely paying attention, dragging their feet and more than ready to make a run for it.  I was stressed just taking it all in.  My television set seemed to be taken over by uber cool pre-teens donning the latest back-to-school fashions to catchy music tunes.  Just a few weeks earlier, I chatted with family members who "dreaded" their kids going back to school, kids who were devastated that they would have to soon get up early again, and other kids who finally got through their required summer reading list.

This was a far cry from my back-to-school experience in the third-world country of Thailand, where local tax dollars are only able to cover public education up until 4th grade and where a large portion of the population have no choice but to discontinue their education at that point - when they are 9 years old to go work in farms and factories to help support their families.  There were no school lists.  There were no paper towels or hand sanitizers. Come to think of it, there were no Meijer's or office supply stores. But every year, months before school started back up, there were hoards of grinning, excited little children at department stores, shopping for school supplies.  That's right, pencil boxes and note books rose to that level of desire and importance - worthy enough for displays in malls reserved typically for special holidays.  And don't get me started on the options.  No one cared what kind of shoes you wore on the first day of school (uniforms were the standard in Thai schools), but EVERYONE would be looking at your pencil box, so kids got a kick out of selecting all kinds of cool and gadgety, multi-layered, secret-hiding-compartment pencil boxes absolutely essential for their learning.  Books were not inexpensive, recyclable collections of paper, but were the universal symbol for knowledge - knowledge that comes at a high price and is only reserved for those with the economic means to attain it.  So they were lovingly protected with intricate folds of beautiful paper.  Thais never threw, wrote, or stepped on a book.  It was taboo, for you would in essence be disrespecting one of the highest sources of wisdom.

In a culture where we too easily sacrifice for our children to have the latest video games and the weekly Happy Meal, maybe it's time we reflect on whether or not we are placing enough importance on one of the most valuable gifts we can give to our child in his or her lifetime? 

A life-long hunger for learning. 
And the freedom and possibilities that come with that. 

Maybe if our tax dollars only paid for a fourth grade education, we might start looking at the back-to-school experience less as a stress-inducing, resource-draining, Old-Navy-focused, dreaded event..........and celebrate it, along with our children, for what it could, and should be. 

An opportunity. 
A gift. 

A life experience reserved only for the most special, most privileged, most important people in our lives.  Now if only Meijer would make a double-decker Scooby-Doo pencil box with built-in pencil sharpener, I know a certain first-grader who would be ecstatic.  A first grader who, on his first day of school, proudly sported his raggedy, used red sneakers that we bought for him last year.


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