How Much Are You Spending On Back-To-School?

So this is what American public schools are like, right?

For observant Jews, the new year starts in September, right around the same time as the academic year. I’ve always thought that was a very pleasing synergy, especially since, until college, I attended Jewish schools. Everyone was preoccupied with, and spending money on, all their beginnings at once. We sharpened pencils, we braided challah, we bought new clothes and wore them to school, then to shul, then to school again. It made sense.

Now it’s September and, for the first time, I’m a back-to-school parent myself. My daughter BG begins pre-K tomorrow. I wrote a little bit about this transition last year, when I was anticipating it, because even Universal Pre-K is only free-ish.

BG turns four in 2016, making her eligible to begin at one of these full day pre-Ks in September. Hurrah, hurrah! New York doesn’t offer paid family leave, like Jersey, Rhode Island, and California do; nor does it lure residents with the promise of no income tax, like Alaska, Florida, Nevada, or a few lucky others. Free pre-K, then, is one of our perks; and considering how expensive childcare is in the city — ours sets us back $1675 each month [for one child], and that’s considered a good deal — I’m excited to take advantage of it.

Except! There are rather a lot of footnotes.

We didn’t know then but have since been relieved to hear that BG got into a neighborhood school with extended hours options. We’ve decided to enroll her in an after-school program that offers one special elective a week at $980 for a 10-week block, plus a $40 registration fee. We had to sign her up, and will have to pay, for school lunch. We also had to make a deal with her old preschool so that she can go there on the (many) days that the school is closed for holidays, including this Monday.

Pre-kindergarteners don’t need much in the way of school supplies, thank goodness, but I’ve already gawked at the super-comprehensive list of what she’ll need to bring next year.


  1. Mead Composition Notebooks (5)
  2. #2 Pencils & Primary (no erasers)
  3. Post-It Notes (5–10 small pads)
  4. Pocket folders (6–10 solid colors)
  5. Construction paper (1 pack)
  6. Colored pencils
  7. Crayons (Jumbo-sized)
  8. Smock or Tee shirt for Art
  9. Water-soluble markers
  10. Water color paint (1 set)
  11. “ZipLoc” bags (2 Gallon size)
  12. Calculator (age appropriate)
  13. Glue sticks (10)
  14. Safety Scissors
  15. Ruler (Cm & Inch)
  16. Index Cards (1 pack)
  17. Clip Board for trips (1)
  18. Paper Towels (3 rolls)
  19. Band Aids (1 box assorted sizes)
  20. Wet Wipes & Disinfectant Wipes
  21. Boxes of Tissues (2 boxes)
  22. Ream of copy paper
  23. Bottles of Hand Soap (3)
  24. Bottles of Hand Sanitizer (3)

I’m so perplexed. Each student is responsible for bringing her own crayons, her own tissues, her own ten glue sticks, her own band-aids? Does the classroom not supply, and the kids not share, anything? Is this usual, or does this indicate that my school is a relatively underfunded one?

A lot of this is unfamiliar since, as I said, I didn’t go to public schools myself. My little K-12 JDS didn’t have a cafeteria that served food until after a major renovation when I was about to graduate, and the members of my class shrugged and kept bringing our lunches from home and eating them wherever around campus with our groups of friends, as we had, at that point, for over a decade. We had to bring supplies but mostly just pens and binders, not copy paper and hand soap.

Seems like my daughter’s going to have a more typical American experience, and I feel mostly good and also a little mixed about it, enough so that I related to Sayed Kashua’s essay about immigration and back-to-school shopping for his children at an Illinois Target. It’s also a simple, and quietly wrenching, piece of writing.

It took me two hours, but I finally figured out the school supplies. The only thing left was a backpack for my little boy who doesn’t know he’s an Arab.

“I want the ‘Star Wars’ backpack,” he demanded as we stood gazing at the rows of bags.

“But sweetie, it says here very clearly that it has to be a one-gallon Ziploc bag,” I explained and showed him the list he couldn’t even read. “We have to get a Ziploc, that’s what the teacher said.”

I couldn’t find anything called Ziploc, despite inspecting every single bag. My older son was getting desperate: “Dad, maybe we should ask someone?”

“No,” I insisted. I wasn’t going to ask anyone. I didn’t want some American sales clerk knowing I couldn’t understand simple, elementary-school English. We’d look for that Ziploc bag in another store. I wasn’t about to let anyone think we were Middle Eastern immigrants coming here to steal jobs from honest Americans. I would not be responsible for a surge in Islamophobia over a Ziploc bag.

Are you back to school this year as a student or teacher, or is your kid? What does it mean for your spending?

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