What to throw out at the end of the school year?

Every parent eventually faces the pile of used school supplies and mementos at the end of the school year. What stays and what goes?And what can you learn about your kids as you sort through the clutter?

Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph/AP
First graders Brooke Jernigan, 7, and Hannah Kay, 7, compare the heavy weight of each other's backpacks after loading all their desk items into their bags to take home on the last day of school at Bell Elementary Global Communications Academy in Tyler, Texas on Friday, June 6.

At the end of the school year parents are faced with the daunting challenge of how to cope with the onslaught of old papers, notebooks, notices, and even awards kids deposit in the house after emptying school desks and lockers.

For the past 20 years, the end of school in our house has meant a dining room table buried in discarded  schoolwork, mementos, artwork, award certificates, crumpled snack wrappers, and other educational detritus.

When my boys were little – pre-K through second grade – I kept just about everything for fear I would jettison something of emotional or scholastic value.

I became a storage bin mom. A parental hoarder of sorts, collecting it all for some imagined posterity when an invisible committee of my peers would come to judge me for my brilliantly sensitive parenting, of which this accumulation would be proof.

My first attempt at organization was to tell each boy when he got to be about 8-years-old that he should start a memory box like the one I’ve had since I was about 7-years-old and then show them my example.

It’s a huge old antique, satin lined, leather bound box and in it are tidbits and talismans of my life: photos, love notes, bits of sea glass, old coins, my old New York Times press pass, and my original wedding ring which snapped when I tried to haul up an anchor during our sailboat adventures. 

The boys took to the idea, using cigar boxes or containers they found at garage sales, but all of them failed to toss in things that were, what my oldest son calls, “box-worthy.”

When I choose what to save, I am choosing for four boys, plus myself, which quickly gets out of hand. I also tried to enlist the boys in this annual clean out and dump.

It’s become the second round of spring cleaning at our house and the kids dread it.

It’s amazing how quickly something the kids would view as “important” if I chose to toss it becomes “junk” when the child is the one having to sort through it all instead of pursuing play time.

Because their focus is often on ending the task quickly I have had to supervise, lest they toss away perfectly good protractors, pencil sharpeners, and blank composition books bought as redundancies on a lengthy school supply list that I will have to replace in the fall if I don’t save them now. 

However, when my oldest boys began to reach the middle of middle school, I made the transition to what I see as a sort of parental archeologist.

I was tempted to call myself an anthropologist because digging through their stuff I learn a lot about their social lives, but there is a key difference.

According to DifferenceBetween.com, Archeology is “the study of the artifacts dug out from below the surface of the earth (related to men from the past). This study, tells us a lot about the culture, lifestyle and history of ancient men.”

Anthropology, on the other hand, is more of a cultural study – less digging and unearthing.

As a parental archaeologist I am using these piles to better understand my sons, because my boys seem to get more tight-lipped about their lives as they get older.

For example, I didn’t know how talented my son Avery, 15, was in art until 2 years ago when I began to find his doodles in the mound of discarded notebooks during one of my digs.

After pulling several drawings out of the pile so I could frame them, two things happened: Avery was immediately keen to help me sort his stuff, and he and I began to reconnect because he liked that I valued his art.

Since then, I have welcomed the piles as an opportunity, rather than a chore.

The doodles, notes passed in class, essays they never brought home, wrappers from special treats I didn’t know they fancied are all bits of my boys that I am getting back. While I am not enshrining candy wrappers or every piece of trash, I am filing them away in my mind and heart for future reference.

Someday, my sons may be sorting through my things and read this blog, which I intend to actually print out and put into my box. Then they’ll know this is one of the ways their mother always knew everything about them and had such keen insights into their characters.

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