The paper chase

August 13,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Have you noticed that as soon as your child sets foot in a school, whether it be a preschool or an elementary school, there's a definite increase in the amount of paper that is spontaneously generated--much of it stuffed in backpacks that are too big, or flapping out of large brown envelopes or colorful folders? We noticed this right away when L. started preschool a few years ago. All of a sudden we were dealing with stacks of paper: artwork, information sheets, calendars, inclement weather notices, party planning notices--you name it. If they could put it on a piece of paper, they did. I realized immediately why all the preschoolers needed such ridiculously large book bags: to hold all the papers, of course.

And if you think preschool generates paper, brace yourself for what comes home in kindergarten. We muddled through L.'s preschool years pretty poorly, as far as dealing with the paper is concerned. But when he started kindergarten, it became painfully clear that we needed to implement a system ASAP, if we were ever to remain on top of all the things he (and we, by default) needed to remember. Since we have three years of elementary school under our belts now, coupled with the fact that having a child with an IEP is enough to spontaneously generate double the usual amount of paperwork, I feel we have some tidbits of advice to share as far as getting a grip on the paper trails goes. I always tell my first semester college students that the key to success in college is organization. I've come to realize that organization is the key to staying sane as the parent of a school-age kid, as well, peppered with a healthy dash of optimism that all that organization you get so good at will somehow trickle down to your child before she gets to high school.

So here are a few of the best tips we've learned, the hard way, over the years:

If you don’t want your kitchen table layered in papers, take advantage of the back-to-school sales and buy a stack of colored folders and one of those slotted folder stands. Label each folder according to a system that works for you. Last year, when L. was doing his homework at home, we had folders labeled by days of the week. Monday was reading, Tuesday math, Wednesday spelling, and so on. At the start of the week, we would separate his pages of homework and file them according to the day of the week.

This year we started doing L.’s homework at school, after school, so we have folders organized according to the papers that make their way home to us: a folder for papers to be signed and returned, a folder for school information, a folder for ongoing at-home school projects, etc.

If you don’t have a family wall calendar yet, get one immediately. You can keep the dates on your own personal calendar, as well, but life will be oh-so-much easier if you have a central family calendar in the kitchen--we didn't learn this until late in the game, and we were continually rushing after each other with our small personal calendars, double-checking dates. As soon as a doctor’s appointment is made, or a parent-teacher conference is scheduled, or a birthday invitation comes in the mail, write it on the calendar. This way you and your spouse won’t be cross-scheduling things, and you won’t mistakenly double-book a day. It’s also a handy way to gauge, at a glance, just how extremely busy you are. Some months on our calendar are just covered in ink and circled dates, and when we pass through the kitchen, we steel ourselves just a little more, bracing ourselves for the crazy month to come.

When your child brings home handouts from school, write any important dates, etc. onto your family calendar immediately, then toss the sheets. Or, better yet, put them in a box or bin marked “scrap paper.” T. and L. are always, always looking for scrap paper and, while L. is often picky about what it looks like, the back side of school information sheets and handouts is perfect for keeping T. occupied with doodling while I’m cooking. Scrap paper is also great when you run out of paper the night before a critical quiz for your students, and you couldn't otherwise print it out because you weren't organized enough to buy another ream of paper earlier in the week.

Buy a long, flat, under-the-bed-bin and write the school year on the lid in a permanent marker. Be merciless. Save the art work that makes you melt inside and be brave and toss the rest. Rest assured—that bin will be filled up in no time at all, and you’ll still have plenty of wonderful creative examples of your child’s work to look at when she’s gone off to college. We have three of these bins now in our crawl space, so perhaps we need to get a little more merciless when it comes to sifting through the backpacks. You can buy a regular-sized bin, of course, but the long, flat ones are perfect for those school art projects, and they stack well.

Of course, the cosmic irony in all this is that I got home yesterday afternoon and found a message on the answering machine from T.’s preschool. Payment #1 for next year was due August 1, apparently, and, since the payment hadn’t been received, the preschool director wanted to know if we were still planning on sending T.

“Because if you're not,” she said cheerfully on the answering machine. “We need to give her slot to someone else!”

Those words are enough to strike terror in any parent’s heart, let me tell you. Scott and I rifled through the papers we keep by the phone and I found the sheaf of information/health forms that the preschool sent out at the beginning of July, along with the letter where it clearly states in bold print that payment is due August 1st.

All ended well, thank goodness. I called them back and apologized, and assured them that T. was, indeed, coming back and, of course, that we would pay the $10 late fee. But I felt I had received a sound blow to my personal pride--I, who have worked so hard to stay organized and to stay on top of school paperwork, had let this slip. Then I realized our fatal error: I should have filed the preschool letter under bills, because it was one. Instead I had filed it under school information.

Obviously organization is still a bit of work-in-progress at our house.