It's the last week of August and you find yourself shopping for school supplies with your very opinionated offspring. He has to have the Star Wars ruler. She wants ("oh please, oh please, oh please") the mechanical pencils. "What the heck," you think. "If it makes everyone happy." If "everyone" includes your children's prospective teachers, you may have to think again. According to an informal survey of local teachers, even the most well-meaning parent can inadvertently pack trouble into junior's backpack.
They spin. They click. They flip or fly. They're the school supplies that students love, teachers hate and office supply stores sell by the thousands every Fall. Top of the list? Annoying writing tools.
"Mechanical pencils bug me," says Joshua Knudson, a fourth grade teacher at Soquel Elementary. "Kids are constantly clicking them and fussing over them. They turn into a toy. The lead breaks or they run out of lead and then kids figure since they're out of lead , they don't need to work."
Mary Lonhart, who teaches 6th and 7th grade at Scotts Valley Middle School agrees. "All day long you hear, 'Who's got lead? Who's got lead?'"
"The problem," Knudson explains, "is if you get the really cute pencils, they become a huge thing. Kids get possessive. Pencils should just be a tool students use, not something they lose and cry a river over."
The solution is good old-fashioned yellow pencils with erasers on top.
Lonhart also warns parents away from anything other than blue or black ink. "The girls hand in essays written in pink or green, which can be hard to read. I especially dislike red since that's the color I use to correct students' work."
Flavored magic markers are another problem according to Lonhart: "Red smells like cherry, green is watermelon. The littler kids lick them, because they think they're going to taste good. Older students pass them around to smell them and then another kid will smack him so he gets a big black mark on his nose."
You would be amazed at the things that students bring each day, according to our classroom experts. Glue, little staplers, even three-hole punches. In fact, smelly markers and more are big business for office supply stores during August and September.
"Back to-school is our biggest selling season of the year," says Alberto Holguin, Sales Manager for Staples, the Office Superstore on 17th Avenue in Santa Cruz. "We peak at tax time and back-to-school with a small rush around Christmas. Most of the basic items just blow out of here."
Some students lug in reams of paper and boxes of fancy art supplies, impressing classmates with their wealth of materials. "Not everyone can afford all that stuff," says Shirley Knight-Lopez, who has taught middle school students in Santa Cruz county for 18 years. "It can make other students feel bad."
If cost is an issue, Lonhart suggests that students find a buddy and share a huge pack of pens or markers. Parents can also speak with teachers about the financial burden of supplies. "Any teacher would be open to financial issues," she assures. "They would never let that slow down a child's progress."
The best way to head off bad feelings is to discourage such overabundance in the first place. "No one needs 120 crayons or markers in school," Lonhart states. "However, every student should have a place at home where they can work on special assignments. That's a great place to keep supplies and bring them in as needed. The big box of crayons should stay there, along with paper, pencils, art supplies, a ruler, glue, good markers."
Teachers agree that there's a time and place for fun stuff, including the hot new Star Wars items. While Knudson's motto is generally "less cute and more function" he admits, "I can remember how exciting it was to get a new binder as a kid. I can appreciate that."
"Anything that gives them some pride in being a good student is the place to start," says Knight-Lopez. "If they think, 'Wow, that's really cool!' maybe they'll be more likely to bring it and to use it."
Be sure to label special items for your child, as they tend to be the ones kids want to borrow and thus get lost or stolen.
But not those little hand pencil sharpeners, please! "I can't stand those!" sighs Knudson. "The lids don't stay on and the dust falls all over the floor."
'Those plastic rulers that have holes in them are the worst," adds a fifth grade teacher. "The kids put them on the tip of a pencil and spin them like helicopters." She recommends that parents opt for one-piece wooden rulers instead.
From messy sharpeners to helicopter rulers, it seems that each teacher can name her or his most dreaded item in a backpack or book bag. That's why it's best to follow the advice that I heard over and over again: Wait until after the first day of school to shop for supplies.
"At our school we send home a list [of necessary supplies]," says Knight-Lopez. "And of course, we tell the kids. For my science classes I require a spiral notebook. It has to be a certain size. They don't know that until they come the first day."
"If your kids are really excited to buy something, get pencils and a binder," suggests Lonhart. "Then wait until they get to school."
Their first homework assignment -- and yours -- will be acquiring school supplies that everyone can live with.
A Student's Basic Supplies
The teachers I spoke with shared their tips for parents on what to buy in the school supply aisle:
* Buy a pencil case small enough for your child's desk and fill it with a few useful items: pencils, markers, a compass and ruler.
* Invest in a well-made backpack, as many schools do not provide lockers. Get one that's not too big, since they hang off the back of students' chairs and can make it hard for other kids to get by.
* Label everything. Supplies labeled with a child's name are rarely part of "he took my pencil" disputes.
* The most important item for a middle school student is an assignment notebook. Find out if the school provides a standard book before you buy one.
* Set up your child's study space at home with the more elaborate items such as a stapler, child-safe scissors, colored pencils, tape and glue.
Tara Leonard lives in Santa Cruz with her husband, two kids, and fond memories of her Partridge Family pencil case.