Supplies and demands

Jacob Sullum

9/4/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jacob Sullum
You've probably seen the Staples commercial in which a father prances through the store to the strains of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," joyfully tossing school supplies into his cart. Having recently returned from a back-to-school shopping trip, I can report that there was very little prancing going on. The parents were too focused on meeting the highly specific requirements of the lists they had received from their children's schools. My daughter Francine's second-grade teacher, for instance, wanted all of her students to have 70-page, wide-ruled spiral notebooks with red covers. We visited several stores but could not find a notebook that satisfied all these criteria. I found a 70-page, wide-ruled notebook with a red cover, but the pages were held together by glue instead of wire. When Francine objected, I pointed out that the pages were perforated near the binding, so they could still be torn out neatly. But the truth was that I was not fully confident the notebook would pass muster, so I kept looking. Target had stacks and stacks of notebooks, and I thought surely one of them would have the right cover, the right binding, the right amount of space between the lines, and the right number of pages. I was wrong. Of the two notebooks that came closest, satisfying three out of four requirements, one had narrow lines and one had a magenta cover. I selected the latter, figuring that wide lines were actually important for beginning writers, while the color of the cover couldn't possibly make a difference. Francine, anxious not to start off on the wrong foot at her new school, pointed out that her teacher had specified red, and magenta was not red. Close enough, I said. She disagreed. Finally, I put my foot down. "Look," I said, "I am not going to any more stores looking for a notebook exactly like the one your teacher wants. This notebook is perfectly fine. It doesn't have to be red. That's just insane." Several parents who heard my tirade looked in my direction, smiling and nodding. But soon they went back to their lists, obediently searching the aisles for pencil boxes of a certain width and unscented narrow markers in sets of 10. After my brief rebellion, I also lost my nerve. The list said Francine needed a set of 16 crayons, but all the boxes with 16 crayons were gone (presumably snapped up by other parents with similar lists). Rather than risk disappointing Francine's teacher by sending her to school with 24 crayons, we got a set with the proper number from another store. Although I suspected that none of this really mattered, I wasn't completely sure, and Francine's anxiety fed my doubts. It didn't help that the list from Francine's school reminded me of my sixth-grade English teacher. Mrs. Martinette (let us call her) was a stern, persnickety woman who had taught all six of my siblings before she taught me. They had all received straight A's. It would be an understatement to say that I was eager to please Mrs. Martinette, and she didn't make it easy. To pick just one example, she insisted that every student have a green Bic fine-point pen that was to be used only for underlining: the date once, your name twice, and the title of your composition three times. One of Mrs. Martinette's favorite maxims was: "When a task has once begun, never leave it 'til it's done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all." She always put heavy emphasis on "well." In an age before white-out and erasable pens, this was quite an intimidating charge. I tore up many a nearly completed book report because I couldn't bear the thought of turning in an assignment with cross-outs and corrections. Today I bear the marks of Mrs. Martinette's rigorous expectations in ways good and bad. I owe my grasp of grammar and syntax, and my abilities as a copy editor and proofreader, largely to her influence. But she also planted the seeds of a ridiculous perfectionism that often irritates my wife and interferes with my happiness. Then again, I can hardly blame Mrs. Martinette for the content of my character. People are constantly presenting us with lists of demands. But as I showed for one brief, shining moment at Target, how we respond to them is up to us.