Inflationary stationery

2014-01-15 00:00

THIS time last year I watched bemused as mothers sweated over lists of stationery required by their children’s schools for the new school year.

Upon inquiring about their evident distress, I was shown lists so long, and trolleys so full, as to boggle the mind of any person who can remember when two small exercise books, a pen, a pencil and a rubber were all that was necessary to start the school year. And those were the years when we could write a very fair cursive hand, when we could construct effortlessly in several tenses and spell like demons, when we could do sums in our heads, and when we could carry a school satchel (at least up to Standard 10) without danger of various anatomical dislocations or dismemberments.

This year, I have witnessed anguish, tears, hair-tearing and total befuddlement as mothers (always mothers) sweat over ever-greater physical and financial loads at the stationery outlets. Some were angry, some sleepless, some sick with worry, some just puzzled, a very few sanguine.

I was given a copy of one of these lists, in this case from Howick Secondary School, and assured by a respected retailer that it was not much different from many other such lists.

It included, inter alia; two reams of A4 paper, 11 quires in hardback A4 exercise books, six A4 examination pads, eight 72-page A4 exercise books, plus a jotter and an A5 hardback one-quire notebook. By my careful reckoning, after much sleuthing in unknown territory, this is a total of precisely 5 000 pages.

I repeat, 5 000 pages, and this for a 12-year-old in Grade 8.

And the school will kindly supply an additional 528 pages, for a grand total of 5 528 pages. To quote my father (who was in the British Army) “Well, bugger me!”

A quick perusal of my bookshelf has revealed that the Complete Works of William Shakespeare is 1 312 pages, including the index and glossary.

My Chambers’s Dictionary (and yes, the spelling is correct) is 1 302 pages from aardvark to zythum (an ancient Egyptian beer, of which I feel very much in need at the present).

The Oxford University Press version of War and Peace is 1 392 pages. Collins’ printing of the King James Bible is 1 152 pages. These four tomes add up to a total of 5 158 pages.

If we subtract 5 158 from 5 528 we get 370, a sufficient number of pages for The Selected Writings of John Ruskin, or a good bodice-ripper (John Ruskin did not care much for bodice ripping).

Can this possibly mean that my 12-year-old acquaintance will be writing at least one door stopper of supreme quality/absolute awfulness within the next 10 months? Or winning a Nobel Prize? Or penning the definitive Grade 8 roman à clef?

Or does it mean that her single mother will be in debt, more or less forever, as she struggles with school fees, school uniforms and school stationery, year after year after year?

The list also includes nine files of various sorts. I did not even see a file up close until well into my tertiary education, I never found it necessary to use one, and the lack thereof seems not to have ruined me entirely. I wonder if Leo Tolstoy used a lever-arch file? Could I be missing something?

In the preamble to the list, the parent is told it is essential that all stationery be available from the first day of term. Can this possibly be correct?

A rough reckoning of the weight of all this paraphernalia is in the order of 10 kilograms. There will be many children with long arms this year, I fear, unless the sale of wheelbarrows goes up.

I was assured, by a charming young man from Alexandra High School, in Grade 9, that he had to lug the whole shebang to school, and from class to class, and back again, every day. His mother told me he destroyed three rucksacks per annum, which is hardly surprising. That he has not wrecked his spine is more surprising.

And, by the way, the most thoroughly bemused person whom I met in all this mayhem was a mother from Swaziland. She said that her child was required to take two small exercise books, two blue pens and a pencil to school.

James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake in blue crayon on bits of cardboard. Amen to that.

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