A while back, I was at a teacher conference at which several vendors were set up. Some were publishers, some carried insurance for union members, some were credit unions. They all were there to serve teachers in some way (and make a profit, but a profit I don’t begrudge as their products and services are actually quite good). They also all had little freebie items on their tables to pull in office supply hungry teachers. We — especially English teachers, I think — have trouble resisting a free pen or highlighter or mini-stapler or stack of tiny post-its or eraser or pencil. But at the time, I had already switched to fountain pens and highlighters, and all I saw was a whole bunch of junk that would last a short time and then end up in a landfill. I even now have a class set of refillable pens (some fountain, some gel, some ballpoint) for student use. The items proffered suddenly looked cheap and wasteful rather than tempting.
I chatted with the vendors to see what kinds of books or other supplies might be good for my classroom. Each vendor offered me a tchotchke which I declined. No one seemed distressed or even surprised except one woman who said, with the amount of shock generally reserved for news of a violent death, “But it’s free!”
I explained I was trying to consume less stuff, and she insisted, “You could give it to one of your students.” The item itself, a combo pen, highlighter, and post-it flag dispenser probably would be happily received by my annotation-crazed AP students, but that seemed wrong after I’d made a fundraiser out of selling all my disposable pens, explained how to find refills for Pilot G2s, and started loaning out my refillable pens and highlighters. I was trying to make visibly sustainable choices in my classroom, and that disposable combination writing utensil was antithetical to the message I was trying to send.
By the time the conference was over, all the tables had been emptied of their freebies. Other teachers (and, presumably, other teachers’ students) benefitted, albeit briefly, from the items, so I did exactly nothing to keep them out of landfills. Still, I felt good about resisting, even if it only helped me.
When I was decluttering this past summer (something I need to do another round of), I was shocked by how many free items I’d accumulated, most of them with the thought I’d use them in my classroom. I didn’t. Over the years they just built up in my school bins until last summer when I gave every last one away to students. I thought I’d stripped down to the bare minimum of classroom materials, but I’m finding I need even less. The last thing I need is something free that I hadn’t planned to acquire.
Now, if someone tried to push a free soymilk maker on me, that’d be another story. I’ve been trying to justify purchasing one for a month.