My Lifelong Love Affair With School Supplies

A backpack stuffed with supplies sits on top of an open book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by artisteer/iStock/Getty Images Plus and iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.

I brought a briefcase to my first day of first grade. Actually, maybe it was more of an attaché case? In any case (ha), it was not what most of my classmates brought to school that day. I remember seeing my brown portfolio hanging there among everyone else’s book bags and understanding that I had gotten something profoundly wrong. But luckily, my attaché case didn’t last long. My birthday is in mid-September, and at my party that year (at a roller rink, naturally), a friend saved me by giving me the ultimate upgrade, a Lisa Frank backpack.

I’m probably far from the only person still carrying around trauma from an early experience of having the wrong school things. How to carry one’s things to, from, and around school has always been a vexing question. For me, in many ways, first grade set the template: Post-briefcase, I continued to approach school supplies with a certain seriousness and professionalism. But underneath that also lay a nagging self-consciousness—I didn’t want to be the proverbial only kid with an attaché case ever again. Looking back, it’s quite possible this is why I developed a fanaticism for school supplies that accompanied me through the rest of my school days.

Elementary school is tough going for the school supply enthusiast; we didn’t even have the freedom to write in pen, and because we sat at the same desks all day, we had no need for things like pencil cases. So it wasn’t until middle school that I began to develop my patented system of organization: Each class—we switched between them, now—got a folder and a notebook or notebook section of its own. (Yes, I invented this.) The hardest part of this system was sizing up teachers in those first few days to determine what kind of notebook or paper to get: paperboard cover vs. heavy-duty Five Star type of thing, wide or college-ruled, three-ring vs. no-ring, standard pages vs. multisectioned. By high school, I had the routine down to a science. And its pièce de résistance, always, was a binder.

At my high school and middle school, we weren’t allowed to carry backpacks around between classes; we could bring them to and from school, but we had to store them in our lockers. No one ever really questioned this—school, we understood, was tyranny—but I think the explanation behind it was that book-filled bags could be used as weapons. For this reason, a twinge of exasperation can still come over me when I see movies and shows where teenagers walk around school with book bags: Those backpacks! They could be used as weapons! The backpack ban rendered the binder even more central to my system than it otherwise might have been. And so, each year, my binder and my planner were my marquee purchases. Yes, I realize how weird it sounds that I was serious enough about school supplies to have “marquee purchases.”

By the time I got to middle school, the famed Trapper Keeper, which revolutionized the school supply industry when it debuted in the late 1970s, was several years past its heyday. Solid-colored, utilitarian three-ring binders were easy to find before its invention, but Trapper Keepers introduced cool designs and wraparound front flaps. Finally, a binder that was more than merely functional; it could be a statement of personal style. It’s been an arms race ever since. In the endless ante-upping of school supplies, binders are Exhibit A. When August rolled around, I always wanted the most tricked-out binder available. I had one that boasted the translucent, futuristic look of an iMac computer. Color was important to me—any shade but purple felt like a betrayal of my very soul. The real high-end ones had fabric covers, maybe even a zipper—for an additional $15 or $20. I felt superior pulling my carefully chosen binder out of my backpack, stashing it under my desk, carrying it through the hallways.

By the time Mitt Romney crowed about his “binders full of women,” I had aged out of the binder-buying demographic. I worked in publishing after college, and I still organized things into folders, but they were almost always virtual. I sometimes wondered how many of my waking hours I spent clicking on folder icons—my folder on the server to my calendar folder to my years folder to my project folder and so on. I didn’t make much money, so I didn’t buy a lot. Physical media became less of a thing. I learned more about the world and my place in it. I started to feel grossed out about how spoiled I was as a kid. Now I think of my 14-year-old self buying fancy school supplies, the nice notebooks, the nice binders, and cringe at how materialistic I was being under the guise of studiousness.

I wanted to see if binders still had a pull over me, so the other day I made a trip to Staples, school supply temple of my youth. I stood in front of a holy wall of “fashion binders,” the top row full of 1- and 2-inch binders, in plain colors, floral, and leopard prints. On the shelf one up from the bottom, I spotted the luxe cloth-covered ones, the ones that mean business. I noticed right away that they were superior to the binders that had accompanied me through my school years. These binders went to 11. Some were 4 inches thick; I didn’t know a binder could come in king size! Some had pockets for laptops. Imagine! And get this—some had handles on their spines. Some also had straps or could be converted to wear as backpacks. These cost upward of $30, even $40. In that moment, things came full circle for me: These binders ceased to be binders; they were briefcases. I thought of the 30 Rock episode where, in trying to invent an improved microwave, the characters added four doors and a wheel and accidentally “invented the Pontiac Aztek.”

Apparently these creepy hybrid briefcase-binders have existed for a few years now. To me, they seem like clear evidence that binders have officially gone too far. I propose an uncanny valley of school carryalls: Just as a child with a rolly backpack disturbs the senses, so does a child with a briefcase. It was weird when I was in first grade, and it is still weird now.

Of course, none of this seems very important in the COVID era, when distance learning means the need to transport paper and books from home to school and back has all but disappeared. But maybe, in a strange way, that’s an argument for the simple pleasures of school supplies being more valuable than ever. If the feel of putting a brand-new, freshly shaved pencil to paper or the satisfying clap of a just-purchased binder’s metal rings can help get kids excited about Zoom learning, well, notebooks for everyone! Of course, I say that as someone who bought the commercialism of back-to-school sales hook, line, and sinker when I was younger. This time around, I was able to leave Staples without a fancy binder I don’t need, and that felt like progress. Even if I couldn’t resist buying myself a cute new pencil case.