James Lileks
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For weeks, the giant yellow pencil has hung over the seasonal aisles of dry-goods stores, looking like a guillotine blade raised to sever summer from its body. Kids may look at it with dismay, turn to you with searching eyes, and ask, "What did you say? A dry-goods store?"

Man, are you going to be happy when they're not hanging around the house all day.

You start to pick up the necessary goods. There's a list. There's always a list, and it's always the same list. Just once it would be spectacular if the school supply list went as follows, just to be honest:

• One thick, stiff, three-ring binder with thin plastic pockets that rip if you try to put anything in them and metal rings that close with sufficient power to pierce the hide of a bison.

• Six slippery plastic folders in different colors, only five of which are still in stock, so you stand there in the school supply aisle the second week of August and feel like a bad parent because you weren't on top of this in July. What is the sixth color? Puce? Teal? Does it matter if she pulls out a yellow folder and it's supposed to be red? Will the class turn and point at her and chant: "Unclean! Unclean!"

• A ruler, in case the teacher comes in with a glazed expression and says, "Break into small groups and measure things" and spends the whole class chewing nicotine gum and staring blankly at condo offerings in Mexico.

• Mechanical pencils with thin lead that snaps off when you try to write with it, topped with a nubbin of pseudo-eraser that pops out of its setting the moment it's used.

• A cheap sharpener from China; when you try to use it on a pencil, it feels like you're trying to screw a nail into the sidewalk.

• Spiral-bound notebooks for enabling the illusion that writing down something is the same as learning it.

• 474 glue sticks, because apparently school is mostly gluing things together. Get the Elmer's brand.

Speaking of glue, do you know why it's called Elmer's? Elmer is married to Elsie, the Borden Cow. She was the spokesbovine for Borden products for years, and a series of wonderful ads in the '40s showed how she always brought the conversation around to Borden products, no matter what. They had marvelous illustrations of their household, with their daughter Beulah jumping on Elmer's back as he attempted to leave the house for work. He would say:

"I'll be back late. I have to see the doctor about this painful boil."

And Elsie would reply, "Well, boiled water and Borden powdered milk make for a nourishing winter treat! Folks just love it."

"Seriously, dear, it hurts. I think it's infected."

"Oh don't be silly. Let's apply a quart of Borden's vanilla to it — the goodness of Borden's will make you feel better."

At this point Elmer would fly into a rage and start cursing her for having Borden on the Brain, which she did. But it was obvious that Elsie brought in the big coin as a national brand saleswoman. Elmer? Well, he was a bull, and he didn't wear any clothes except a hat, and supposedly he had a job — but even though there was a domestic manpower shortage in the '40s, companies would have balked at hiring a naked bull who sat slumped at his desk glowering out at the customers, muttering about That Cow to whom he was married. You know Elsie got him the job, and you know he resented her for it.

At some point Borden went into the glue business, and Elmer was put in charge of the brand. That's why he's so happy, why his picture shows him beaming with cocky pride. Finally, he's doing something, instead of walking to the office, kicking his briefcase ahead of him because his cloven hoofs can't grasp the handle.

Kids today know Elmer more than Elsie. That might make him happy, but I suspect Elsie left him after the twins were grown and moved to Scottsdale.

But, back to the list. You need one more thing:

• One pink eraser that just gets that nubbly pink stuff everywhere, but generates a scent that will implant a deep nostalgic emotion for one's youth. Not middle school because that's a blur. Not high school because, well, no one wants to remember the smells of high school. Grade school, though, is different. Everyone has their own memories of grade school, reduced to a few moments and scents. The smell of the classroom when the heaters kicked on in October. Mucilage and ditto fluid. Old milk and hallway barf. The scent of the pencil sharpener — the good one bolted to the wall.

All of these things flood the mind when you see the school supplies, whether you're parent or child. And you smile. And you think what you think every year:

Stop putting this stuff out so soon.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks