The Plain White Binder (and Other Back to School Dilemmas)

photo by: William Warby

I love office supply stores. When I had my first child, five years ago, part of me was giddy at the thought that I now had a tiny, child-sized excuse to shop for “back to school” every fall.

Except… apparently people don’t go shopping for back-to-school supplies anymore.

What you do instead–at least at my daughter’s school–is sign up for a service that delivers a prepacked kit to your kid’s classroom on the first day of school.

Unfortunately, the deadline to sign up for this nifty service was in June. June. When not even I—the biggest office supply nerd of them all—was thinking about school supplies.

So I slunk down to Staples, riddled with guilt and shame, but determined that my daughter should not suffer for my inability to plan ahead. I had a list of everything in the damned kit and a plan to buy her the exact items she would have gotten had she not been cursed with a mother who missed important deadlines.

Item #1: 1 Durable View 1′ Binder (White)

I was marching toward the wall of binders on the side of the store when it hit me: Maybe missing the deadline was a blessing in disguise. Now that I was being forced to buy all of my daughter’s supplies myself, I had the option of getting her more interesting stuff.

Instead of a boring white binder, I could get her the purple one with sparkles and hearts that I know she’d like better. She wouldn’t get stuck with the dull, nondescript stuff that the kids with organized parents would have. She’d have cool, unique things that would make school fun.

The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that the parents who really cared about their kids had probably turned up their noses at that deadline on purpose so they could lovingly pick out every item themselves. On some level, I had probably known this all along. Missing the deadline had actually been a stellar (if subconscious) parenting decision.

But even as that comforting thought entered my head, another less-comforting one intruded on my delusional self-congratulatory bliss:

What if my daughter doesn’t want to stand out? What if she just wants the same school supplies everybody else has?

What if my daughter, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, is a conformist? Should I respect this and help her not to make waves? Or is it my duty, as her mother, to demonstrate the joys—nay, the necessity—of being yourself?

Or maybe she does want to stand out, she just doesn’t want her school supplies to be the medium with which she makes this statement. Just buying her the assigned white binder wouldn’t necessarily doom her to a life of mind-numbing group think, would it? WOULD IT? I mean, there are worse things than a tiny bit of conformity on the first day of kindergarten, aren’t there?

A vivid image of my daughter’s first interaction with her teacher came to me:

TEACHER: Students, please take out your white binders.

DAUGHTER: I don’t have a white binder. I have a purple binder with glitter and furry hearts on it because my mother is a psychopath and wanted me to be socially traumatized on my first day of school.

TEACHER: Clearly your mother is using you to further her own agenda and make a statement about non-conformity instead of thinking about you as an individual who needs to make her own life choices.

DAUGHTER: Clearly.

OR—and now I was standing frozen in the binder section, completely ignoring the concerned salesman who had asked me twice if he can help me find anything—what if this whole “white binder” business was some sort of litmus test? A fatalistic sorting device designed to separate the class into Those With White Binders and Those Without.

A new image of my daughter popped up: Her binder a lone spot of color amidst a sea of desks with white binders on them except for, wait… what was this? Another girl in the back of the room pulls out the exact same purple binder. My daughter turns around. Their eyes meet. They smile. It’s the beginning of an epic friendship. One which will define their lives and change them for the better. All because their mothers couldn’t follow directions properly.

How tragic would it be if my daughter missed out on this friendship because I bought her the wrong binder? And what about this other girl, the one destined to be teased for her choice of binder? Didn’t I owe it to her to send my daughter to school with a non-white binder, too? My daughter was tough and self-assured: she could handle a little teasing. She could make all the difference for that other girl.

Oh God, my daughter’s imaginary teacher was right. I was absolutely projecting my own agenda onto her (and her imaginary classmate).

Right, okay. It’s not about me, or any of my increasingly insane hypotheticals. It’s about practicalities. Maybe their first project on Day #1 of school will be to decorate their white binders. Then every kid in the class will have a personalized binder that perfectly mirrors their individual sensibilities . . . except for my daughter, who will be stuck with a purple, sparkly one because her mother is a control freak who completely overthought the entire school-supplies buying thing.

Maybe it’s time to move on to Item #2.

Item #2: Colored Pencils (Crayola – 12ct)

There now, that’s easy. Unambiguous.

I practically skip over to the colored pencil area, only to discover that the 12ct Crayola pencils come in both regular and pastel versions.

Oh for the love . . .

Cory Putman Oakes is a mom of two from Austin, Texas. When she’s not actively “momming,” she writes books for kids and teens.

Photo: William Warby

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Comments (1)

  1. MOM2Three

    This is very funny and spot-on. Is it me or my kids I’m shopping for? The line gets blurry.