We’re approaching the fifth anniversary of an event that forever changed the fabric of American life, an event that shook us to our core — or might have, if anybody had bothered to notice. No, I’m not talking about 9/11. I’m talking about the disappearance of the Big Chief tablet.
I got to thinking about Big Chief last weekend as I embarked on a scavenger hunt for school supplies for my kids. It was a bittersweet experience, because I was provisioning one surly adolescent and one 5-year-old. The 5-year-old was excited about starting kindergarten; the only thing the surly adolescent was excited about was the fact that he got to stay home and have all the video games to himself while his little brother was out shopping for crayons with me.
Anyway, what struck me as I jostled with other parents searching for pink Pearl erasers and folders with pockets plus prongs was how much school-supply lists have changed over the years. When I began my formal education at Annie Sims Elementary, all I remember carrying in my satchel that first day was a clutch of No. 2 lead pencils (emerald green and as big around as Red Vines candy), a wooden ruler, a jar of rubber cement, and a Big Chief tablet (and, yes, that does prove I’m old enough to be your mother).
But my sons’ lists included not just stuff for their own use but also “community property” contributions. To the best of my knowledge, this notion was born a few years ago when schools started asking each student to contribute a box of tissues to their class. Now, schools strapped for funds have run with that idea, requiring kids to chip in general classroom supplies such as Clorox wipes, Post-It notes, Baggies, hand soap, reams of copy paper, markers the teacher can use on the overhead projector, and, at some schools, good ol’ U.S. paper currency.
For example, at one local elementary, second-graders are asked to bring three boxes of tissue, two reams of white copy paper, one box of gallon-size plastic bags, a package of dry-erase markers, a roll of paper towels, and a package of baby wipes — in addition to their own school supplies.
That’s not the only way in which lists have expanded. Technological advances have led to new school-supply requirements. Several area schools require kids to bring calculators and headphones to use at computer workstations; some require formatted floppy disks. Athens Middle School strongly encourages kids to bring electronic spell-checkers.
Other “advances” apparently failed to impress educators. Backpacks with wheels don’t fit into lockers; Trapper Keepers, though cool and convenient, don’t fit into desks. Almost every school in this area asks kids to bring “blue or black” ink pens, and some specifically ban the more colorful gel-type pens. Same with crayons — most lists I saw banned boxes of more than 24 colors. Fluorescent colors, along with “novelty” pencils and erasers, are practically deemed contraband. At some schools, mechanical pencils are considered the instruments of the devil. My 5-year-old was required to bring only classic yellow pencils — the kind made of wood.
Then there’s the branding question. Some teachers are persnickety about brand names. Porta first-graders are instructed to bring only American- or Eagle-brand pencils because “other brands do not sharpen well and break easily,” according to the school’s supply list. Yet at Iles School (Springfield District 186’s “gifted” magnet), the Eagle brand of pencils is not allowed. Meanwhile, over at Edinburg Community School District No. 4, third-graders are encouraged to purchase only Ticonderoga pencils. The only brand every school unanimously endorses: Fiskars scissors.
If you read the lists close enough, you can find a few sparks of creativity. New Berlin first-graders have to bring a single clean Popsicle stick. Athens eighth-graders are asked to donate duct tape, string, and aluminum foil. Riverton middle-schoolers are required to have deodorant for P.E.
And those Ticonderoga-wielding Edinburg kids’ school-supply list includes 21 pennies, 10 dimes, eight nickels, and five quarters.
But no list mentions Big Chief. That’s because the last plant to manufacture the sacred scroll — Springfield Tablet, in Springfield, Mo. — was taken over by Everett Pad and Paper and closed in January 2001.
Nothing will ever take the Chief’s place. Kids these days can get by with a spiral notebook — any ol’ brand will do. I guess that’s OK. It’s not the paper that counts; it’s what the kids write on it that matters.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at firstname.lastname@example.org.