All that glitters is not glue

Those twin tremors of terror and excitement, fear and hope, endings and beginnings, could signify only one thing — the first day of school.

Who can forget the interminable wait at that familiar corner for the school bus? Or, once at school, the meandering journey through the bureaucracy of classroom rules, subject outlines and future projects?

And when it’s time to procure the new tools of your trade, a.k.a. school supplies, you know summer’s sweet freedom has officially flown.

A few of us — the lucky ones — may find the necessary basics at a small-scale, mom-and-pop-type store where there are only a few options (thus making the task less arduous). But for most, getting school-ready will mean braving the sterile, fluorescent lighting and overstocked shelves of the local sprawl-mart or office-supply mecca.

On a recent field trip to research the latest in the world of school supplies, I entered one of the latter establishments and found myself standing at the mouth of a maze built specifically to usher the customer through an obstacle course of the most up-to-date educational paraphernalia. The first rack I encountered displayed assorted organizers and planners designed with the school-age child in mind. These “funkier” versions of standard business gear come in a wide variety of bright colors; some even include a glittery, translucent pocket or two (presumably to make organizing more fun).

The same company also manufactures a whole slew of trend-conscious bags for transporting the aforementioned organizers: Students can choose from a spectrum of styles, including a pouch specifically designed to house pencils, a utility pack, a shoulder bag and a version of the popular messenger bag. Old-school backpacks, of course, were available as well — but they were hidden in a less-prominent corner, far from the must-have ueber-totes.

At this point, the customer must circumambulate a display of standard pencils, mechanical pencils and pens. For every kind of writing utensil desired there’s a multitude of choices, making this an unlikely (though somehow apt) symbol of the glut of options confronting the typical American consumer. I scanned hundreds, perhaps thousands, of variations on the old-fashioned partnership of pencil and pen.

Each package boasted a unique feature: a more comfortable grip, more ink per pen, brighter colors — or, for lack of anything better, simply “buy one, get one free.”

Don’t get me wrong — as a writer, I appreciate the privilege of choosing my favorite pen. I even, it must be confessed, harbor specific preferences for certain sizes, shapes and colors. Yet the sheer range of possibilities proved overwhelming, and I didn’t totally relax till I spied the comfortingly familiar Pink Pearl eraser ($1.59 for a three-pack).

My self-propelled tour led me past such “necessities” as locker kits (complete with mirrors, magnets and shelves) and a lap desk for the student on the move, as well as more standard items like rulers (albeit in nine different varieties) and book covers. You can cover six books in shiny foil for a mere $6.99. (On the other hand, recycled paper bags are even cheaper, if less glamorous.)

I also noted those dinosaurs of early academic exploration — namely folders, scissors and glue. As for the latter item, the number of choices available is simply astounding: It’s definitely not just about stickiness anymore. You can choose from a dizzying array of permanent, temporary, washable, nontoxic, even disappearing glues — not to mention glue with glitter and even color-changing, chameleonic glue. And then there’s the question of how you like your glue? (You can pick from sticks, tubes, liquids or pastes.) Or consider two long-lasting iconoclasts — Rubber Cement and this reporter’s personal favorite, Krazy Glue.

Boot me up

Since I was last in the market for such items, though, the greatest evolution in the business is definitely in the realm of educational computer software. These learning tools come in age-appropriate versions aimed at every conceivable kind of student. Mattel Interactive makes a program that retails for $19.99 called “Sesame Street — Baby and Me.” (To send the point home, a photo on the box shows a mother holding her laughing baby in front of a computer screen.) The same company also makes programs for toddlers, preschoolers, kindergarteners and every other student ascending the classroom hierarchy. Willing pupils could presumably learn everything from typing to phonics to foreign languages — not to mention general “mind-enhancing thinking games.”

Starting at ever-younger ages, it seems, kids are encouraged to use “fun” versions of what they’ll encounter later in the business world. The true tools of academic creation remain largely unchanged. But the plethora of choices for every possible item makes one wonder whether these proliferating options, and the specialization of school supplies in general, actually help children become better students — or simply help them become better consumers.

Finally, while we’re on the subject, I’d like to recommend a tried-and-true favorite: The marbled Mead Composition notebook. Both useful and fashionable, it’s innovative enough to house all of your most up-and-coming ideas. And it retails for a mere $2.89: Now that’s progress.

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