"To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much: impossible."
- Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Much like the ever-growing pre-Christmas season, summer break is now hardly long enough for area merchants to let us know how - and where - to clothe, equip, entice and electronically gadgetize the young folks back to school.
According to a recent poll, with catchy phrases like "back-to-school rocks... go back smarter... hit the books with the hottest looks" and "values that make the grade," TV commercials, newspaper inserts, and in-store marquees now entice the bill-paying set to spend an average of $550 per family on annual back-to-school supplies.
All this for the most modern, best-financed and equipped school system in the history of the world? Whatever happened to the two new pencils, one fat, stand-alone eraser and optional ruler nestled inside the hand-held pencil box of my back-to-school days?
And what about the clothes even today's modestly dressed child must have? The sheer volume of said wardrobe, to say nothing of the cost, wildly outpaces my two or three new or hand-me-down outfits and single pair of shoes, necessitated by my growing girth and feet.
I couldn't help myself: I read every advertisement, breaking down each item into categories and comparing it to my list of a few generations ago. My eyes are still bulging at what I learned. To "Gear up for Back 2 School" - even the spelling books have changed! - one store advised the following:
* "Compact Flash Card." Just one? In my day "card" would have been plural and homemade, and we'd use them to list number facts, spelling words, and lots of other things we had to memorize. (Oh, that was in a day before computers when memory used to be standard equipment inside our heads, not an accessory inside a machine.)
* Next came something called a "Mini Optical Mouse," which I could get free with a $50 purchase. I have no idea what that is, either, but for the manufacturer's sake I hope they cleared the name with the Disney folks. Trademark laws being what they are, that's awfully close to a certain animated female figure who's been around longer than I have.
* "PalmOne Mobility Kit," also free if I just spend $150-$400 on something else I could hold in my "palm," which is a lot more expensive than my shiny new, and completely adequate, pencil box of yore.
"Don't miss out on cool phones for back to school," headlined another insert. Since when did a distracting, 50-feet-from-a-pay-phone and, the last I knew, barred-from-the-classroom personal phone become standard "gear" for the schoolhouse set? And cost? You could get a cheapie for around $40, if you don't mind the stigma, but for the "multimedia experience," you're looking at upwards to $200, depending on the number of multi-distractions you're willing to buy.
To soften the blow of the cost or, more likely, to increase their marketing possibilities, another retailer stretched the back-to-school theme by saying their must-haves are just as useful for work, home and fun as they are for school. I don't know, maybe that way they'll sell more expensive electronics, soothing CDs for unwinding after class and dozens of accessories to rev up your life in or outside the classroom.
But, finally, a group of inserts I could relate to. Did you notice? There's a crayon war out there. For a few days anyway, a big box of Crayolas costs anywhere from 88 cents at one store to three-for-a-dollar at another, and even less at the other end of town.
Then there were the clever marketers who capitalized on the seasonal theme with come-ons like, "Back to Cool Sale," featuring furniture and accessories to make your dorm room - or home study corner - relaxing and "groovy."
I know, times have changed, as have the purses and purchasers of back-to-school paraphernalia, and I'm not knocking all that's available and perhaps even helpful to students today.
Still, I received a pretty good education with the contents of that little pencil box plus a notebook or two back there in those old, creaky-floored buildings we called schools.
But maybe it's not so much what's in the box, the palm, or the study corner at home or away that guarantees a good education. Perhaps that guarantee comes only with attentiveness in the classroom, eagerness to learn and responsibility to complete all work as it is assigned.
Or, as one of my long-ago classmates wrote in his back-to-school report, "Happiness is an eraser to chew."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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