I didn’t realize it, but when I was shipping boxes of school supplies to Honduras with Central American Medical Outreach, an Orrville-based mission, I was collecting “good deals” on school supplies from the end of July to the clearances held after the first week of school. I should have seen the signs then. It was nothing to buy cases of notebook paper and notebooks, and thousands of pencils and pens. Friends would donate more supplies. Crayons were my complete weakness. After school started, I’d sneak into Walmart, like some midnight junkie, and snap up case after case of discounted 10-cent boxes of crayons. I did this all in the name of helping others.
Then, after three or so months in our basement, I’d lug them upstairs and load them in boxes to be shipped down in January with the CAMO trucks driving to Honduras and gleefully hand them out to schoolchildren. Let me add that for kids in Honduras, the paper, pencils, pens, glue, crayons, etc., were like Christmas presents. Students don’t have bagfuls of supplies. Neither do teachers. In truth, they desperately need school supplies, in big cities and rural mountain villages. I’d also take a huge Rubbermaid tub filled with hundreds of more pens and pencils when I went with the February mission teams. People were ecstatic to get a pencil. Who knew it could bring such profound joy? All of them were welcomed, and I hope, used.
To this day, many kind folks from area schools and volunteers from around the country donate school supplies to CAMO for the Honduran kids. I backed out a few years ago because it simply became too cumbersome, and truth be told, my friends were too generous. I felt terrible stopping, but knew it was sucking the life and money out of me. I became depressed and anxious when school supply shopping time came, instead of excited about what good work my friends and I were doing. For a few years after stopping, I’d get a bit of a nervous twitch when the office supply super ads came out.
When I became a teacher and was hired for my first job, within a week, I bought school supplies. I realized the good deals now were tied to conditions, like only four sets of dry-erase markers for $1 instead of unlimited, or only two pairs of scissors for 15 cents. However, I proudly shopped on, even with very limited funds as I awaited that first paycheck.
At my school district, in the final days of the 2010-11 school year, then-administrators decided to consolidate the supplies into one area, and took all teachers’ school supplies from their classrooms, leaving the bare minimum. I was warned of this by another teacher. I decided then and there I would never use school-purchased supplies if I could help it; I’d be self-sufficient. After affixing labels to everything from packs of crayons to packs of pencils, I took some of my supplies to school, to start the year, excited to have provided for myself.
Other teachers viewed me as a bit overzealous, perhaps. They smiled and shrugged, like I was the new teacher and they didn’t want to burst my bubble. As a Spanish teacher, we did a lot of coloring and crafty things in class over the year, demanding sets of crayons, markers, pencils, scissors, glue sticks and the like. However, when kids broke a colored pencil, didn’t pack up supplies and put them back on my cart, complained my crayons were becoming dull, or whined because I only had one ruler, I snapped. I was like a Spanish Gollum, holding the ruler and rasping, “my Precious!” I paid for these! I put off paying bills for these! Show the covetous respect that I had, I demanded. They too, thought I was a bit overprotective. I did not.
Pride became a key player here. I was one of a handful of teachers who could and would willingly provide students with pencils. “Just keep it,” I’d say, when they took it. I think it felt good, in my mind, to say that I, a lowly first-year teacher, could and would provide for my students in need. Even the ones who seemed to need every single day. A generous friend gave me hundreds of pencils, new and used, from his workplace. I felt like a queen! Or Gollum, sitting in the dark cave, on a rock, holding my packs of pencils. At night, when I walked out, if the custodian was sweeping, I’d ask if I could pick up the useable pencils and pens. Students complained that I didn’t have mechanical pencils. Why they prefer the brittle lead that I always seemed to snap was beyond me, but I would shrug and say, “I’m old school. Take it or leave it.” Sometimes they left it. More for me, I thought.
As the school year came to an end, I had some wonderful student volunteers sorting, packing, lifting and storing boxes for me. Guess what I packed by myself, not letting them touch? That’s right. The school supplies. I left the many books and teaching materials at school, but guess what I took home and lovingly carried into the house? The unused school supplies. I knew I didn’t need a ton for the next year, just three or four boxes of crayons, a few markers, a pair or two of scissors, and some new colored pencils. Nothing much.
On Sunday, as my entire dining room table was covered, stacked with supplies, I felt queasy. “I’m an addict!” I wailed to my sister. She came out of her room and nearly fainted at the sight. I could have opened my own store of supplies. “Look at this!” I cried. “I’m sick!”
“Hmmm, maybe you are,” she said, in her best big sister comforting voice. “You seem to have an addiction. We have addictive personalities. How much did you spend?”
I looked up, feeling sicker, and said, “I can’t tell you. I am ashamed.”
So for the next half hour, we held an interesting discussion about this addiction of mine and in a way, hers.
Our parents were children of the Depression. My father, in particular. His parents were thrifty and poor. However, Grandma Wilma Hauenstein, I’m told, was an amazing cook and baker. I know her two daughters, my Aunts Lavonne and Fae, are excellent and are well-known in the Dalton and Kidron communities for their cooking prowess. My father, with his eyes glazed over, and a bit of drool on his mouth, would tell stories of his mother baking pies, cakes, cookies, breads, noodles and the like all day Saturday, for the visitors who came on Sundays to see my grandfather. Grandpa Hauenstein was an extremely social and likeable man, however, I suspect his large number of friends and visitors could be attributed to the unparalleled culinary skills of his wife and daughters. My mother learned a great deal from her late mother-in-law, the benefits of which we have reaped or been saddled with are obvious.
My mom and dad, to this day, have always planted large gardens. They canned, froze, or dried everything they could, from pumpkins to potatoes to the dreaded green beans, tomatoes and innumerable bags of frozen cut sweet corn, with relish and pickles, cherries, apricots, quince, applesauce, apple butter, cider, peaches, plums, pears, juices, and more in between. I hated canning season, which seemed to stretch from June to the start of school. My father left nothing to waste, just as he had been raised. He was proud of his full cellar, stocked All. Summer. Long. By me.
On my mom’s side, Grammy Muncy was an excellent cook as well, and her concoctions, were whipped well into her 80s, especially her cakes and Southern-style green beans, were to die for. She also prided herself on Southern hospitality. My mom and aunt pride themselves on outdoing each other at Christmas and every major and minor holiday, outgifting each other’s children and grandchildren. If my mom can’t one-up my Auntie Ruth, she’s most distressed.
As my sister and I carried on this discussion, we remarked numerous times that if we were Mormons, we’d easily meet the church ideals of stockpiling. We spend more time sorting and tossing stuff we don’t use in our pantry, freezer, fridge, and shelves, than using. A good Mormon should have a year’s supply of provisions. We don’t have the six-month supply of money, but we do have the food part down pat.
We continued to talk, discussing our own addictions and the need to have things, to share, because in part, we don’t feel like we are good friends or that people will want to be our friends, if we don’t have things to give. The two of us counted numerous and sometimes painful examples of this. “It makes us feel good and secure, and like we are good people if we have these things,” she said, and I agreed completely.
In our society, buying in bulk has become the norm. On any given day, people wheel out huge carts from warehouse clubs, loaded with mega boxes of cereals and the like. We pay for memberships for the right to buy more, more, more. Amongst my friends, it’s not uncommon for a family of four or five to gulp two to three gallons of milk a week, and a loaf or two of bread a day. I just purchased a new loaf of bread after realizing the one in the fridge, half-gone, was about three weeks old. Couponing to the extreme has spawned a craze in America, with a TV show that shows people pridefully displaying their caches of laundry detergent and toilet paper, buying more, more, more, for less. They are celebrated as thrifty heroes.
In other countries, the mega-sized mentality doesn’t exist as much, mainly because of the high prices of food and clothing and the smaller amounts of space. I remembered reading about how mega-packs of toilet paper didn’t sell well when marketed in England. Why? Bathrooms are too small and so is storage space. Today, we fill a storage unit and think nothing of it, when our basements, garages, sheds and closets are too full of stuff. Large quantities make us feel secure. I realized I’m not alone.
After our talk, I began to critically look at my stacks. My sister brought up some small containers from the basement, part of her teaching supplies, and told me to clean them up, and sort what supplies I wanted, and we’d put them in and take them to my high school classroom this week. I also filled bags for our church’s back-to-school drive for the Salvation Army, and filled another bag for a fellow teacher friend, and also filled another bag to return to one of the mega office supply stores, when I found remnants of my 2011 spree still in bags in the spare room, identical to what I just purchased.
The supplies are boxed, considerably smaller in number, and I felt much better, knowing I could start to get a grip on why I spent the money, and how to stop the nonsense, little step by little step.
“You should come and see this!” I said to my sister. “There’s less here now!”
She didn’t answer me. She was busy sorting her socks in her closet, muttering, wondering where they all came from.
Published: July 26, 2012