Tom Ross: Nostalgic for school supplies |

Tom Ross: Nostalgic for school supplies

Kindergarten teacher Grady Turner prepares his classroom for Wednesday, when students will return to school for the first day of the 2010-11 academic year in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell

— Ah, the smell of fresh worksheets coming off the Ditto machine on a crisp autumn afternoon. Does it get any better than that?

Veteran Steamboat Springs public school teacher Susan Ogden said one of her most distinct memories of elementary school in Los Angeles was the smell of acetone or alcohol coming off freshly copied worksheets. We called the mimeograph a Ditto machine, or spirit copier, at Charles R. Van Hise Elementary School, but I share the same olfactory memory that Ogden recalls.

There were no photocopiers in the 1960s, and teachers who wanted to make copies put a thick waxy original on the drum of the Ditto machine and turned the crank to print as many as 120 copies a minute.

The mimeograph was actually a slightly different technology. Instead of a thick, inked original, it relied on an ink-filled drum with an acetate stencil wrapped around the drum.

Whichever system they relied on at your school, you probably haven’t forgotten the smell.

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I was such a nerd when I was in primary school that I thought shopping for pencils and notebook paper was hugely exciting. How about you?

The memories of leaving the house after dinner on an early September night and heading to Kresge’s five and dime with my list and my mom in tow are vivid.

In preparation for second grade with Mrs. Vick, we purchased an ink cartridge pen so that I could learn to write in cursive like a big boy. The only problem was, I’m left-handed and the ink from the cartridge pen was wet when it first hit the page. As I dragged my wrist across my lined paper, I smudged my carefully formed letters with their descenders and ascenders.

The modified fountain pen was my tormentor, but I prized it just the same.

Ogden recalls that when she was in elementary school in west Los Angeles, she lusted each year for Crayola 64, the giant box of crayons with the built-in sharpener.

“There were four of us in my family and we couldn’t afford Crayola 64,” Ogden said Monday. “I always settled for the 12-pack. I grew up in an era in public schools when the school provided almost everything but the Buster Brown shoes.”

Ogden begins her 24th year teaching here Wednesday when she welcomes her second-graders to Strawberry Park Elementary School. Her list of required school supplies includes a box of crayons or colored pencils, four dozen No. 2 pencils (good quality, please), a package of pencil-top erasers, a bound composition book (not a spiral notebook), and a pair of plastic pocket folders.

Students, please leave the three-ring binders at home.

“Third grade is when students begin to use three-ring binders and graduate to having their own desk instead of a communal table,” Ogden said.

That will come as news to Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush, who said three-ring binders were a big deal to all the children at Linwood School in Minneapolis in the late 1950s.

“Three-ring binders were huge, and I liked to have something special on the cover of mine,” Mitsch Bush said. “In second grade, it was a ballet dancer, but by third grade, I was into astrophysics. I was all over Galileo, not that I understood him.”

As best as I can remember, in third grade I was more into Henry Aaron, of the Milwaukee Braves, than Galileo. By fifth grade, I wanted to be a fossil hunter and would have been overjoyed to find the words “rock pick” on my list of school supplies.

If you are in your late 20s or early 30s, your favorite school supply might have been the Trapper Keeper.

The Trapper Keeper is a brand of binder that represented an update on the old three-ring binder. Made by Mead, it used sliding plastic rings instead of the metal rings that snap closed in old-school three-ring binders. They also featured a wrap-around Velcro closure.

The Trapper Keeper’s popularity among students, which lasted more than 25 years, probably was because of bright graphics that features cartoon characters, TV shows and video games (Sonic the Hedgehog, anyone?).

A quick scan of school supply lists posted by Steamboat teachers this year reflects a preference for plain white binders and classic bound composition notebooks, the kind with the strangely mottled black and white covers.

I’ll take a fat spiral notebook with brown cardboard covers, three divider pages and a pocket to stuff Ditto pages in any old day. It’s all about the smell of traditional school supplies.

If you have a particular school supply you’re nostalgic for, I’d like to hear about it.

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