Back in the day before Bratz, before Argentinean TV imports, Hannah Montana, Dora the Explorer or Bob the Builder, school supply buying and the supplies themselves were kinder, gentler things.
Growing up in New York City and attending a Queens yeshiva, life was so much simpler than the grand shopping expedition buying school supplies for the kids has become these days.
You know the scene: You get dragged to the mall and for three hours, your child explains why he or she simply must have a new schoolbag with the picture of the Kids TV or Teen Show Star of the Month emblazoned on it, or a pencil case featuring the latest TV or teen heartthrob.
Oh, for the good old days. Somewhere in our boidem is my first grade notebook, the classic black and white, hard cover model, still intact, filled with pictures cut out for every letter of the alphabet, from A to Z. I don't remember buying that particular notebook, but its sheer survival testifies to its obvious advantage over today's flimsier types.
Back in the day, we carried our books to school in "book bags" or "briefcases," as they were called, which seemed to expand at will, especially if one had a particularly winning day at flipping baseball cards during recess.
The bags had several simple compartments, some of which I used to hide a variety of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches I would rather not talk about, but which my mother discovered in various stages of decay months later.
The bags had this great leather smell to them, too - the kind that lingered in my father's briefcase when he came home from work, and his son smoothly slipped The New York Times out of it. No jelly stains in there.
THERE WERE other simple additions, for sure, to the list of items we kept in our bag and were purchased for school: A box of circular reinforcements for loose-leaf notebook sheets, with which we and the other guys occasionally spelled out obscene remarks on the bathroom mirror in later years. There was a pencil case with a pull-down, plastic drawer that usually contained our very best marble, among other things, a couple of No. 2 pencils, and a pencil sharpener so tiny and simple it never produced a point that didn't eventually crack off, usually in the middle of a test.
No flashy markers existed back then. There were no seemingly endless sets of what my kids call "iparon hodi," but what we knew simply as mechanical pencils and were the stuff of nerds only. We stuck to the No. 2s, and added a stubby eraser to go with 'em. Somewhere, a poor janitor is still sweeping up the columns of eraser dust I created with that thing. And there was a bottle of glue that managed to crust over so badly no matter when we bought one, it only dripped out a few, highly ineffective drops before we had to buy another.
Far more important than the briefcase itself was its accompanying device, however: the lunch box. Now here was something to get excited about. Because while the sandwiches usually ended up in the bottom of the briefcase, they started out in the lunch box, and your lunch box told the world who you were.
For months we lobbied for a Roy Rogers lunch box and after throwing a few fits, actually got one. Years later, it found its way to the scrap heap, replaced by a more "mature" model. We don't think Roy, Dale and Bullet ever forgave us.
But the ultimate sign of class in grade school was simple: How many crayons did you have? While in first grade, it was still acceptable to have a small box of six Crayola crayons, by sixth grade, nothing less than the 64-color box (burnt sienna, anyone?) was required or you were categorized a wimp. Watching the crayons shed pieces of themselves as they were sharpened was fascinating in itself, but placed on the radiator that ran the length of the classroom during the winter, they yielded drippings that fell on the floor that rivaled even anything Jackson Pollack could do. Even today, we'd kill for a box of 64.
Once we made it to high school - public high school, where we made regular contributions to the young hoodlums whose daily shakedowns became part of our routine on our walk home - we couldn't be bothered with book bags anymore. Now it was simple. All we needed was one rubber strap, swung around the increasingly uneven collection of biology or chemistry texts, large history tomes, foreign language books and notebooks, and others, with a bag lunch tossed in there somewhere, usually mashed by the time we got around to eating it.
IT WAS around this time that we discovered perhaps the single most useful school supply of all time. The Bic pen not only could be used to fire vicious spitballs through its tubing during lunchroom exchanges, as bigger, foil-wrapper ones whizzed by, but could also be employed in magic tricks - watch the cap snap back onto the pen. Voila! - and most importantly, remains the single best tool for respooling cassette tapes bearing vital information that suddenly unreel during a crucial interview review.
By the time we got to college, it was less the school supplies and more just getting the actual classes you wanted that mattered. The notebooks got thicker - multi-subject jobs with little tabs separating them, and razor-thin markers became our writing implement of preference. No. 2 pencils had long been relegated to the taking of SAT and other standardized tests. We're certain that years from now, archeologists will likely discover those pencils and brand them some kind of ritual object.
They were earlier, better times, when reading, writing and arithmetic seemed to matter more than just who was on Gossip Girl or some other TV show last night.
So when your kids start hassling you about the new school bag they simply must have, check the boidem and see if your old briefcase, lunch box or first grade notebook are still there. Pull 'em out and show them that simple can be just as good - or better. And remember: Roy Rogers would never date any of the Bratz girls.