The Spiral-Bound Life

I have to go school supply shopping this week, and my kid has finally hit the point in his academic career where, after years of giant, unwieldy binders filled with reams of loose-leaf paper, he’s decided to just pick up some five-subject spiral notebooks. I knew this day would come and I’ve been praying for it. The spiral-bound notebook is such a perfect school supply. In fact, it’s so great that it’s the subject of two of my favorite poems, Eve L. Ewing’s “To the Notebook Kid” and Ted Kooser’s “A Spiral Notebook”.

I encourage you to read both in their entirety, starting with Dr. Ewing’s poem and ending with Mr. Kooser’s, because they reflect upon different ends of life. Ewing’s line about “the ocean/you keep hidden in a jacked-up five star.” is about potential, promise, youth, and sets up a great closing stanza; Koozer laments, “It seems/a part of growing old is no longer/to have five subjects, each/demanding an equal share of attention,” although even he hasn’t lost some sense of that youthful wonder.

To this day, I still write drafts in spiral notebooks. It’s mostly a comfort of habit, as I’ve been filling “creative writing journals” since I took Mrs. Taber’s creative writing class in my senior year of high school; however, it’s also something that has always felt right to me. There’s something more intimate to me about writing in a notebook than typing on a laptop, and even if you don’t agree with me there, I’m sure you can agree that writing in a notebook with its lack of open browser tabs is certainly less distracting than a laptop screen.

I made the notebook transition when I got to high school as well. It’s possible that I had binders in the ninth grade, but I was definitely full notebook by the time tenth grade rolled around, having started with that classroom-issued yellow paper with blue lines in first grade off of which you could never erase cleanly before moving on to huge binders full of college ruled loose-leaf and the “Midvale School for the Gifted” Far Side cartoon blown up to 8-12 x 11 as a cover and finally to the spiral notebooks. Yes, I occasionally had to use composition notebooks, which I hated because you couldn’t tear out the pages cleanly and couldn’t fold over as nicely as a sprial-bound; and I dabbled in the Wireless Neatbooks that were not neat and usually fell apart within a few weeks after they were purchased; but those spiral notebooks became the staple of my school supply shopping*.

Most of the spiral-bound notebooks I’ve purchased over the years have been your basic-model five-subject college ruled notebooks. But every once in a while, I splurge and buy a Five Star.

With a durable plastic cover that measures 9″x11″ with 8-1/2″x11″ sheets, the Mead Five Star maintains its neatness through quite a bit of abuse; plus, with pockets at each subject divider, it’s heavier than your average spiral-bound five-subject notebook. It’s a piece of equipment, not just a school supply, and the price shows in the craftsmanship, as it’s not going to look completely destroyed by February, something demonstrated in the commercials.

Now, I probably wasn’t thinking about that when I was in high school, but I did take note of how “together” everything stayed within a Five Star as opposed to the notebooks that I had whose covers had fallen off and were stapled to the books’ first pages. Also, the amount of crap that one can cram into a locker always astonished me. My high school had the lockers like you see in The Breakfast Club: a long locker with a coat hook but also an attached “cubby” for textbooks. That’s where you shoved your lunch bag and I’m sure where a number of my peers shoved whatever contraband they were bringing onto school grounds**.

Anyway, that durability was a trademark of Five Star’s ad campaign throughout the early Nineties, and in one commercial, they managed to not only hit upon all of the “silly ways this thing can be abused” ad trope, but also the “cool Gen-Xer ’90s teen” trope (I linked the commercial here, but play-through is disabled so you’ll have to watch it on YouTube).

Commenters on the YouTube video have pointed out that this is Todd Alexander, who played Rob on the PBS series Ghostwriter. That was a little after my PBS-watching days, but it’s still a cool connection to be able to make. Anyway, what I love about this is the way that Rob is yet another “cool teen in a cool room”, living the kind of suburban life that we were all sort of living, or at least wished we were living in 1994. He’s got his earphones in, he’s got his drumsticks going, he’s got a basketball hoop set up and always makes the shot. I was never this cool. Then again, you can’t exactly be cool when you ask your parents to buy you a two-drawer filing cabinet for your bedroom.

Mead would extend the whole Five Star concept into a line of school supplies, including backpacks, making the brand a huge flex for the teens … at least according to this commercial (again, play-through has been disabled so you have to watch on YouTube).

The actor is Christian Hoff, a former Kids Incorporated cast member who has had a long career as a character actor on television series throughout the last few decades. I’m not sure who the girl in the commercial is except that they were clearly going for a Career Opportunities-era Jennifer Connolly with the look. And he’s another typical ’90s teen guy, the douche who thinks he’s all that because a pretty girl looks at him for more than a split second. Of course, the joke being that it’s his school supplies that have her attention. Is the message here that having Five Star is going to get you noticed and maybe even in with the ladies? I’m … not exactly sure. If it was, then I missed my chance because had I bought a lot of Five Star back in high school, maybe I would have actually gotten a date.

Damn cheap basic notebooks.

* To this day, I remember my first trip to Staples in East Islip. My friend Rich had bought a three-inch Avery binder with a plastic window and that’s what I’d wanted for eighth grade. It was like Randall walking into Big Choice video in Clerks. I wanted everything.

** We had the privilege of not having to deal with overzealous local police departments who thought it would be fun to bring drug-sniffing dogs into the school on a semi-annual basis. At one school where I taught, this was the “code yellow” lockdown, and oh man, I could go on about the inequities of punishment that resulted from those searches.

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