When I speak to my daughter Kelly's grade school about the books, I always bring props, and it's fun to see the kids' wide-eyed reactions to everything from a Steve Urkel doll to a brick-sized cell phone. They're always a little weirded out by the candy cigarettes (these were the least of our parents' worries back in the day), and once one kid identified a 3.5 floppy disk as a letter opener.
The amazement works both ways, though. I was floored when Kelly started school and I learned that every kid toted a water bottle around with them all day. In the 1970s, we could've keeled over from dehydration at our desk and we still weren't getting a drink unless we raised our hand and were formally excused to seek out a drinking fountain. (Teachers and parents warned you not to put your mouth directly on the spout, but come on, that water never spouted, it dribbled — wrapping your mouth around it was the only way to get any liquid.)
Some of these school supplies of the 1970s and '80s are as foreign to kids today as that floppy disk (not a letter opener!) was to Kelly's classmate. Maybe some of these items still exist in your schools, but it sure seems like most of them are flunking out when it comes to popularity.
1. Chalkboard erasers
Many schools don't even have chalkboards any more, having moved on to whiteboards or SMART boards. Bummer for those kids, who will never know the treat of being chosen to clap erasers. You and a classmate were sent outside to bang the dusty chalkboard erasers against the brick school building, as if you were force-clapping extra-powdery alien hands. How often do you get to hit things, make a mess, and get out of class, all in one? I don't really want to think of how much chalk dust we inhaled or what that did to our insides.
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2. Filmstrip projectors
You could sub in the name of any nearly-obsolete audio-visual equipment here, but filmstrip projectors are my favorite. Remember the START screen? Having to move the first strip back and forth to center the picture? The FOCUS screen? Putting the film in backwards — whoops! Also noteworthy: Slide projectors that BOOPED and BEEPED when the teacher was supposed to advance the slides, and those 16 mm movies. It was always a happy school day when you spotted your teacher wheeling one of those into your classroom. And I also loved the overhead projector (great for making shadow puppets), which my daughter's teachers still use, though often to project something from their desktop computer.
3. Metal lunchboxes
When did we move from metal lunchboxes to the soft-sided ones? How am I supposed to clonk the playground bully on his head with my Polly Pal lunchbox if it's as squishy as Wonder Bread? But maybe the change was a good one — every metal lunch box ever made smells like 1977-era sour milk to this day.
4. Digital watches with built-in calculators
Math was not my best subject, so when calculator watches came out, you bet I wanted one. And you bet my parents said ha ha ha boo hoo hoo, dream on, kid. I dimly remember them being instantly banned from classrooms anyway, and my fingers were not smartphone-trained back in the day, so it probably would've taken me the whole test time just to surreptitiously punch in one equation. Today's kids probably just hide an iPhone up their sleeves or something.
It's tough to find a typewriter in today's classroom — though computer-savvy kids need those same skills. But today it's called "keyboarding," and who needs to teach it to a generation that's been raised on texting and Minecraft? One thing I don't miss: Remember making a mistake typing and having to backspace over that with white typewriter-correction tape? Yeah, I always made a mess of it.
6. Library-book due-date cards
I volunteer in my daughter's school library, and when I re-shelve a book that still has a due-date card pocket in it, I give it a hug like I've just met an old grade-school friend. The scrawled names, the purple-stamped dates; they're a time-warp tunnel back to history, showing the names, classrooms and dates the book was checked out. I always wonder where those kids are today. Nowadays, I just pull up each kid's profile in the computer and scan a bar code on the back of the book they want to check out. Technologically easier, but not as personal.
Sadly, my daughter's school no longer has the beloved red playground balls we called kickballs (though other schools do), and not so sadly, they no longer play dodgeball. Kickball was one of my favorite grade-school sports, though I missed the ball more often than I connected. But dodgeball? It's like a physical-education teacher who really hated kids decided to make up a game. The banning of dodgeball in some schools has created controversy for those who feel like we're already coddling modern kids too much.
8. Trapper Keepers
Mead Trapper Keepers still exist, but they're not the must-have school supply they were back in the day. If you don't know Trapper Keepers, they were kind of like a jail for your homework, with specially cut folders that "trapped" your papers, which seemed to us as marvelous an invention as flying cars. Mine had a baby harp seal on it and couldn't have been more '80s if Madonna and Princess Diana bought it for me personally. Kids today seem perpetually perplexed as to why these were a big deal, and why any other folder wouldn't have done the job. Can't explain the Eighties, kids. But a Trapper Keeper recently made an appearance in Netflix's "Stranger Things," held by dearly beloved Barb, of course.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper's "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?" covered the neon-drenched 1980s and bell-bottom wearing 1970s, and "The Totally Sweet '90s" looked at the era of scrunchies and Beanie Babies.