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Martha Spalding Mozingo: Secrets of a school-supplies shopaholic

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Back to school. Three words that cast a pall over the last sizzling days of August. But to a secret sect of adults, "back to school" means hunting season. We prowl the aisles of box stores and office suppliers. Oh yes, we might be shopping for the kids, but the dirty little secret is, we want all the pens and paper for ourselves.

The roots of my addiction are lost in time. All I know is, I'm the one sniffing pencil cases, scribbling on those little white "test" pads, and pawing the hologram folios. Or maybe the ones with puppies.

Much as today, my private elementary school had strict rules on what kind of pens, pencils and supplies could be used. Ballpoints were verboten. The standard-issue writing instrument was the ubiquitous Schaeffer refillable fountain pen. The transparent plastic barrel came in assortment of colors: ruby red, emerald, sunny yellow. Though red, green and black ink cartridges were available, only blue was allowed for schoolwork. Like black-market traders, we occasionally swapped the highly desired contraband "peacock blue" ink, a luscious turquoise.

As a lefthander, my pinky was permanently stained from eight years of pushing that fountain pen across lined notebook paper.

A fresh, unopened ream of notebook paper held the same promise as a breast of new-fallen snow. I could barely stand to open the package and fan the pages.

Best of all was the brand-new box of Crayola crayons. Opening the yellow striped box was akin to Christmas morning. Rows of little wax points, unsullied and deliciously sharp, standing as a regiment. Only the biggest showoff brought the 48-pack, the rest of us settled for a box of eight or 16. Nothing like the scent of newly opened box of crayons.

In junior high, we lugged monstrous three-ring binders covered in faux denim. They were luridly embellished with Magic Marker in Peter Max-style graphics of our latest crush: "Kathy luvs Keith," "Sherry + Mark 4ever." Of course, Magic Markers came in only four colors: black, red, green and blue. But sniffing them was half the fun.

The assortment of school paraphernalia for sale today would have left my childhood self paralyzed with delight and indecision. Notebooks and report covers come in every color of the spectrum. Glitter, hologram, kitties, puppies. Pens that light up, pens that double as lava lamps, pens with feathers, baubles and jewels. Metallic pens, pens that write in glitter!

I've aged out of the market for back-to-school supplies. But every August, I'm drawn to them anyway, with their promise of creativity and a new season. We all believe in a fresh start, and a blank page and a fresh pen beckon us to try again.

So if you see a middle-aged woman sniffing crayons, that's me. I suggest you give it a try!

Martha Spalding Mozingo is a grants officer at Marshall University Graduate College in South Charleston. She may be emailed at spalding@marshall.edu.


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