Remember when it was the poster board? I do. I remember my elementary school classmates—Russell, Missy, Jake—who could never afford it, who would raise their hands meekly, eyes downcast, when the teacher asked, “Who needs help getting poster board?” I pitied them and wondered what else they couldn’t afford: a pack of National Football League pencils, a Hong Kong Phooey notebook, one of those four-color ball-point pens, a mega-box of 64 Crayola crayons with the cool little sharpener built into the back. The teacher would summon them to the back of the classroom, hand each of them a white piece of poster board that she had pulled out from behind a cabinet or bookcase or portable coat closet. The teacher must be rich, I reasoned, stocked up, as she was, with so much expendable poster board. The summoned students would walk slowly back to their desks, poster board in hand, careful to avoid eye contact. Poor kids, I thought. Poor, poor kids. Pity, I know now, is the worst form of disgust.
For my part, I loved shopping for school supplies, and especially for poster board. I felt powerful, a little man, nine years old or so, navigating the People’s Drug Store aisles peeking around a white or yellow—usually blue—sheet of poster board, a sign of an elementary student’s status. I would carry it proudly to the cashier, Mom giggling, “Watch where you’re going.” Funny, as I remember it—I don’t recall what I ever did with the poster board. I can’t remember any of the projects. I just remember the purchasing. And the pity.
Today I can, if I choose, order 100 sheets of poster board from Amazon.com—ten sheets each in ten vibrant colors, including two shades of blue—for $31.03 with shipping and handling. That’s 31 cents per sheet. I’m tempted. I don’t know, all these years later, how much Mom paid for the poster board back then, in the mid- to late-1970s. A dollar, maybe? Seventy-nine cents?
The point is this: Even when it was poster board, Russell, Missy, and Jake, three kids who had no say in their families’ financial conditions or the affordability of school supplies, were at a disadvantage. As were the kids who, like Russell, Missy, and Jake, couldn’t financially afford poster board, but who, to an even greater degree, couldn’t psychologically afford the stigma that mark students who follow teachers to the backs of their classrooms for a public handout.
That’s when it was poster board. Now it’s computers. And the Internet. And software. And a printer. And unlike poster board, which our teachers might have required of us once or twice a year back in the days when it was poster board, students today—including the Russells and Missys and Jakes—are expected to have access to computers and the Internet and software and a printer on a regular, if not daily, basis.
Today I can, if I choose, buy a computer from Amazon.com for $1,040.79, the average cost of the site’s five best-selling desktops. These computers do not come with Internet access or a printer and include only the most rudimentary software, making them the rough equivalents of one of those 8-count boxes of Crayola Crayons without the cool sharpener in the back. Despite these limitations, the $1,040.79 price tag amounts to approximately 3,354 sheets of poster board, including approximately 671 sheets in one of two shades of blue.
So, raise your hand, all you nine-years-or-so-olds, if you do not own a computer. Or if you own a computer, but do not have Internet access, which you probably need in order to complete tonight’s Social Studies homework.
Chances are, if your parents or guardians bring in more than $75,000 in annual income, you will have no problem doing your homework. After all, 93% of you did not raise your hand. You have a computer and Internet access at home—maybe in your own bedroom. So even if you are part of the 7% which has not quite made it into the digital age, amateur statistics suggest that your nine closest neighbors are wired. I hope you’ve been kind to them and shared your toys.
If your parents or guardians bring in an annual income of less than $30,000, you may be in trouble. Fifty-one percent of you—more than seven times the percentage of your wealthier classmates—do not have a computer and Internet access.
Perhaps if you, my young friends, valued your educations enough to get yourselves born into wealthier households, you, too, could go online, wade through the pornography, dodge sex predators, and complete your Social Studies homework. Or shop for blue poster board.