For parents, the graphing calculator is usually the last straw.
They held their tongues over the four different sizes of binders, the very specific brand of scissors, the locker stand, the hand sanitizer, the stretchable book covers. But then they see the price tag for the graphing calculator: $90, if they're lucky.
These parents always say two things: 1) "I have to pay 90 bucks? For a calculator?!" followed quickly by 2) "When I was in school "
And with that, the annual communal grumble about back-to-school supplies is under way.
The National Retail Federation estimates that the average family of K-12 students plans to spend $800 this year, which is a $30 decrease from 2010 but still about $780 more than most families would prefer to spend.
It's not just the money, of course; it's the maddening search for the item that is either more expensive than a generic brand or can't be found.
Why? Why does it have to be a Mead composition notebook? Why do they have to be Crayola crayons? Why do we have to buy all these pencils?
I've always found that if you want the answer, you ask a teacher.
In Dawn Voelker's mind, it all started to change about eight years ago. Her first 12 years in the classroom, the supply list was short and sweet: back pack, supply box, couple of pencils, crayons, scissors, maybe a folder and some glue. If the students ran out of something, either the school or -- more often -- the teacher would replace it.
Then as teachers started spending more money on supplies, there was a kind of mass epiphany: Have the parents buy more stuff.
"It was all fine when it was one or two things, but now it's starting to get expensive," she said. "As a parent, now I'm thinking, 'What do you need all this for?' "
Voelker, who teaches second grade at Winchester Elementary School in West Seneca, knows that lots of parents hate that they might not be able to use something they already have. On her list, for example, she asks for Elmer's glue, Fiskar scissors, vinyl folders and Crayola crayons.
In every case, the reason is the same: quality. The above items all are likely to last the entire school year, as opposed to off brands which are more likely to either fall apart or not work.
"Some kids bring [generic items] in anyway. Do I say, 'No, I don't accept these?' No. I just let them use them," she said. And after they break? "I'm a sucker. I go home and dig through my bin, and I go dig out some crayons and bring them in."
Some would argue that if the item doesn't make it through the year, then it's up to the parent to step up and replace it. That sounds good, but the reality is that some parents can't or won't. Then you either have a kid without scissors or a teacher out spending money. Neither alternative is a good one.
Jessica Sipes, who teaches kindergarten at School 3 in Buffalo, knows that money is a huge issue for parents. That's why she and other teachers get their lists out in June so smart shoppers can look for sales and coupons over the summer. She noticed, for example, that Crayola crayons were on sale for 40 cents for a 24 pack recently at Target. By September, the same item will be $1.
Other items on lists have to do with the evolving classroom. Chalkboards have been replaced by dry erase boards, which means the kids have to have dry erase markers. And they have to be low-odor dry erase markers.
"If they're not low odor, your whole room reeks," Voelker said. "You're opening up your windows, your plants are dying, the kids are dropping. It has to be low-odor."
If you ask, there is an answer for every item. Old sock? Dry erase board eraser. Folders that have to be a certain color? The colors might match a subject and stay the same each year. Ziploc bags? Science projects.
OK, but what about all these pencils? Teachers are asking for enough pencils to build log cabins. Voelker wants kids to show up with 36 pencils.
"Because they eat them," she said. "I swear if I could put a kid on an X-ray, there are pencils in them."
I guess that explains why they don't want pens.