SPRING HILL — The school supplies display was a technicolor island on the Walmart floor, and it gleamed with the things Lynn Wayman's daughter loved. The folders and markers and pencil cases stretched across the color spectrum, and beyond them lay a menagerie of backpacks and lunch boxes festooned with fantastic creatures.
Wayman had thought about not bringing 8-year-old Libby-Jane at all. She didn't want to disappoint her, to come across a delightful unicorn backpack only to have to tell her it was far too expensive.
“Make a list, and I’ll see what I can do,” she'd told Libby-Jane. “But I can’t promise.”
But she didn’t want her to miss out, and Libby-Jane stood beside her as she stopped the cart, pulled out her phone and anxiously scrolled through the shopping list.
American parents pay more than ever for their children's school supplies, which for some means stretching a tight budget even thinner. Many feel those strains in Hernando County, where more than half of public school students meet the state's definition of "economically disadvantaged." Despite a proliferation of back-to-school events that aim to get supplies into the hands of kids whose families can't afford them, the need remains.
In the display’s second aisle, Wayman compared the costs of markers. Libby-Jane’s school, a Christian school for kids with special needs, didn’t specify a brand. The list from Explorer K-8, where her 3-year-old son, Colby, was about to start a program to improve his speech, asked for Crayola — 33 cents more. Those cents add up, she thought.
She had wanted to take the kids to one of the local events that give out supplies, but they were almost all on Saturdays, and the kids spent weekends with her ex-husband, who lives in another county. So she spent the next hour in Walmart, with her ex-husband and his employee discount, squinting at per-unit costs and doing math in her head.
She’d do this in the backpack section, where Libby-Jane settled on a fluff-covered backpack in rainbow-sherbet tones. And she’d do it when she sought items that seemed to have little to do with learning: wipes, copy paper, plastic spoons.
She was calculating again when Libby-Jane pulled down a pack of slightly pricier pencils decorated in stars and stripes that glinted in the box-store fluorescence. She figured she wouldn’t argue over fifty cents.
“And is that important to you for your school supplies?” she asked in a bright, soft voice that already knew the answer. “That they’re sparkly?”
American families with children in kindergarten through 12th grade expect to spend an average of nearly $700 on back-to-school shopping this year, according to the National Retail Foundation. That’s a record amount, nearly $150 per family more than a decade ago. They plan to spend an average of $117.49 just on supplies such as notebooks, backpacks and lunch boxes.
“It can be expensive — the clothing needs coupled with the supply lists,” said Hernando County School District superintendent John Stratton. “Our parents work hard.”
School supplies lists are set by individual schools and classes, a district spokesperson said, and the district doesn’t give formal guidelines on what they should ask for. But Stratton, a former principal, said he expects principals to make sure those lists ask for only what kids need.
“If you don’t need five folders,” he said, “don’t ask for five folders.”
Schools can help parents in need, Stratton said. He also pointed to several back-to-school events across Hernando County, including the district’s own Back-to-School Bash, that offer supplies giveaways leading up to the new school year. That event, which also included free haircuts, immunizations and medical screenings, drew about 5,000 people this year, according to a district press release.
Jennifer LaRossa, the chairwoman of Operation Backpack in Spring Hill, said her organization spent about $18,000 donated by local sponsors on 1,000 backpacks and other school supplies for Hernando and Pasco school kids this year.
In the six years of the event, she said, she’s noticed kids — and their lists — asking for more. Two boxes of pencils instead of one. Calculators. Tissues and copy paper. The event doesn’t offer all of those things.
She’s also realized that other factors may prevent families most in need from getting this help. They may lack transportation or have to work on the Saturday of the event. LaRossa said she’s started putting aside supplies for those who come afterward, asking if she has anything left.
“It’s very difficult,” she said. “We may have a very successful event where we’ve gotten rid of all our supplies and then realized we’ve only served 5 percent of the children in the county.”
The lead-up to this school year left Wayman more stressed than any before. For the first time, she’d have two kids in school. She works from home in a customer service job, but caring for the kids meant she only had nights free in the summer. Their schedules limited work to 25 hours a week.
She saw what people on Facebook said in conversations about struggling to afford school supplies — that people like her shouldn’t have had kids if they couldn’t afford to provide for them.
Wayman wanted them to know that she hadn’t planned this, hadn’t envisioned herself as a divorcee with a part-time job and two kids, one of whom has special needs that require travel for treatment multiple times a month. She hadn’t planned to hope Libby-Jane wouldn’t draw looks at school if she showed up without markers.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “I don’t want to go into huge depth with her, like, we can choose between getting a new backpack and putting food on the table.”
For the day, at least, it was almost over. One item left on Wayman’s list: Copy paper.
They bypassed racks of children’s clothes — a few polo shirts ordered online, combined with last year’s clothes, would have to do for the first few weeks. In the stationary section, she picked a generic-looking package of paper that lacked a price tag. A price-check scanner told her: $6.92. It went in the cart with the wipes and hand sanitizer and the folders that had to be plastic and had to have prongs.
“Fine,” she said. “I mean, not really, but it’ll have to be.”
Soon they were back near the doors they’d come in through. They clustered around a self-checkout kiosk, and Wayman started the long process of dragging each object across the scanner.
Boop. The fuzzy rainbow backpack. Boop. The brick of printer paper. Boop. Libby-Jane’s pencils, with their glimmering stars and ribbons of gold.
Boop, as her ex-husband's employee discount dropped the total from $110.42 to $99.38. She swiped a card. A box popped up on the screen: “Card Declined.”
“Oh, what did I do?” she said. “That’s the card I really wanted to use.”
A second card the machine wouldn’t take, and then a third card and, finally, a relieved sigh.
Outside the store, Wayman thought about how they had shopped the best they could, used the discount, not even bought new clothes, and it still cost half of her last paycheck.
But for this day, she hadn’t had to deny Libby-Jane as much as she’d feared. She’d done all she could, and at least some of it sparkled.
Contact Jack Evans at email@example.com. Follow @JackHEvans.