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The Keeper of the Trapper Keeper

I cleaned out the twins’ book bags at the end of the last school year. After I emptied their binders of their contents, I told them that I was going to put them back in their bag and they could reuse them the next school year. Because I’d feel like an asshole putting these perfectly good, albeit scuffed binders in a landfill even though I totally understood their crushed faces. One of the sole joys of school is decorating your Trapper Keeper.

Which is why I always wanted a solid coloured one (vs. one with a picture) — so I could write all over it in Sharpie. (I also wrote all over my Keds with ballpoint pen, starting with that rubbery ridge around the side of the shoe and slowly moving onto the canvas when I ran out of space.)

I usually started planning out my binder decorations in the summer. All binder decorations began with a solid base of a 50/50 split between inside jokes with friends (you know, the sort that you hoped someone in class would read on your binder and wonder what it meant and just how much fun you must be to write such crazy, amusing things) and song lyrics. If you planned early enough, before anyone had touched pen to Trapper Keeper plastic, you could coordinate the inside jokes across your binders. The same went for song lyrics. You didn’t want to have the same song lyrics — that would be stupid. But it was nice to have similar song lyrics. Such as two different Violent Femmes songs. Or maybe I’d go with The Smiths and another person would go with The Cure.

You never never never wrote the name of someone you were dating on your binder because (1) your parents wouldn’t buy you a new one if you broke up and you’d be stuck looking at that person’s name all year and (2) even if your parents were crazy enough to buy you a new binder because they felt sorry for you, you’d have to redo all of the song lyrics and inside jokes. So no names of boyfriends/girlfriends.

The other rule of the binder was that you never wrote on someone else’s binder. Writing on their pink rubber eraser — totally within the boundaries of decency. But never on their binder. Your binder was like your face; it was the face of your school supplies. (Secondary only to the paper bag book covers our mothers made for our textbooks which were also decorated within an inch of their life. I cannot even explain the horror of the year my mother purchased book covers instead of folding them out of old grocery store bags. The paper was glossy and everything smeared.)

No one wanted to save their binder because so much changed over the summer. The inside jokes changed. New songs were released. You saw movies and wanted to write a new list of actors and actresses names on the inner flap. Which is why I threw out the twins’ classroom dividers (in their school, each child gets a manilla “wall” to put up between desks during exams) that they had decorated with Junie B. Jones quotes and proclamations of love for the Beastie Boys. I knew they would want new ones come September to decorate with… something else. Who knows what will be classroom divider or binder-worthy this year? It’s been a long summer.

The twins’ binders are the sort with a plastic sleeve over the vinyl front, providing a small gap in which to slip a decorated piece of paper. I saved last year’s decorations and swapped them out for a new piece of blank paper (that I predict will be covered in doodles by October).

So sorry kids, you’re stuck with the same damn binders for a second year in a row. Get used to it. I suck.

How did you decorate your school binder/book covers/locker when you were little?


1 tigger62077 { 08.27.12 at 10:54 am }

They have a new piece of paper to decorate – it’s almost as good as a new binder, right? I apparently sucked at being a kid. I never decorated my TK, binders, notebooks, nothing. I still don’t, really. I can’t bring myself to draw on things that are not paper designed for drawing, or the inside of a notebook.

2 Queenie { 08.27.12 at 11:13 am }

No one had Trapperkeepers at my school–too dorky (sorry!–but funny that one man’s supreme cool is another’s social pariah). But paper bag bookcovers were the way to go. Mine were covered in doodles.

Speaking of which, do students still cover their books? Do they use paper bags? And if so, where do they get them??? (All of those questions make me feel a thousand years old).

3 m. { 08.27.12 at 11:56 am }

Queenie, I’ll be old with you! We had to cover our books and for sure brown paper bags were the way to go. What a canvas! Ridiculously tiny ornate doodles peppered with song lyrics for me. I never had a Trapper Keeper but I did have a ton of different colored thick paper folders, who all suffered the same fate as my books.

I think the blank paper in the sleeve is a brilliant way to refresh. Just as good as a new binder. And not as permanent, so like, one *could* put a special name in there without worrying you’d be stuck with it all year.

4 Cherish { 08.27.12 at 1:48 pm }

I was homeschooled and my mom was extremely frugal. We didn’t even get to use blank lined paper. Everything was done on the back side of already used paper – leftover church bulletin covers, dot-matrix printed reports from my dad’s work, overage from a printshop. I remember buying my friend’s old, already-decorated Trapper Keeper and being super excited just for that. I just added a few doodles to her existing ones.

5 Tara { 08.27.12 at 2:37 pm }

I remember Trapper Keepers as being pretty poor in quality (at least in the mid- 80s) — the cardboard bent, the metal rings would get pulled open or wouldn’t close properly. Mine certainly were never in any usable condition to be reused the following year, so kudos to your kids for keeping them in usable condition. (Plus, as I recall, the notebook itself was pretty small — maybe a 1/2 inch ring? — whereas
mostly I needed a larger ring for all of my elementary school subjects.)

Other than having my mom write my name legibly on the front of the notebook, I’m pretty sure it did not receive any further decoration.

6 Mud Hut Mama { 08.27.12 at 2:54 pm }

I loved my Trapper Keeper but haven’t thought about that in so many years. We didn’t decorate ours and definitely went for the ones with the pictures but the grocery bag book covers – yes – those were decorated. Good on you for keeping binders out of the landfill!

7 a { 08.27.12 at 3:32 pm }

All I have to say is:

And if a double decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die

8 Amy { 08.27.12 at 3:49 pm }

Oh, wow, that really brings back memories! My brother and I never got Trapper Keepers…my mom was way too generic. I would have also been killed if I’d defaced something (binder, Keds – of which I had many pairs in many colors to fit my skinny ass feet!). We got the solid ones with (thankfully) the clear pockets front, back and spine. I would spend a good chunk of time creating collage masterpieces with magazine cutouts and construction paper. I also always, always covered my textbooks with inside out brown grocery bag covers and drew all over those. How my things looked was nearly as important as my school clothes!

9 Rae { 08.27.12 at 4:04 pm }

It was less about the trapper keeper in elementary school and more about the pencil box. It had to have lots of compartments and buttons that made things pop out. High school was all about covering books in old paper bags and decorating the heck out of them.

10 KeAnne { 08.27.12 at 4:22 pm }

I’m going to have to think about this. I don’t recall decorating any of my school supplies! Or maybe I’m blocking it out…I was a big doodler in my notebooks.

11 Ellen K. { 08.27.12 at 5:58 pm }

I have fond memories of a particular Trapper Keeper in grade school, but brown paper bags were the proper textbook covers in junior high and high school.

12 Jen { 08.27.12 at 7:52 pm }

Brown paper bag book covers decorated with stickers and doodles, then covered with clear contact paper for extra durability. Inevitably, the preserved designs were further graffitied with more ball point pen doodles. I wasn’t much into song lyrics though.

13 Bea { 08.28.12 at 12:48 am }

Wow. This was… not a thing. Or at least not a thing for me. Not in primary school, anyway. I do remember it happening in high school with the school diary and some other books but I remember it being more a way to quash boredom than a work of art you expected others to take interest in.

I’m sure the twins will get over it in time 🙂


14 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 08.28.12 at 1:57 am }

We weren’t allowed to decorate anything until 7th grade when we were instructed to make paper bag book covers (ourselves, no moms involved).

The only writing I can recall was during the Bush-Dukakis election, at the very beginning of 8th grade. I lived in one of the biggest Conservative hotbeds in the country. Bush choosing Quayle as a running mate meant that he’d need to choose a replacement in the Senate, and he decided to choose his wife.

My book cover graffiti:

A Quayle in the Bush is worth two in the Senate.

I thought I was the most clever person ever. None of my classmates agreed.

15 smiling.scar { 08.28.12 at 2:52 am }

Ah thanks for the memories… when I got sent off to Catholic school in 6th grade, we also had to cover all our text books as well as our desks. I LOVED my decorated desk, but those changed a few times a year so we could bravely put names of crushes, always in code, on those:)

16 Blanche { 08.28.12 at 3:15 pm }

If I recall correctly, buttons were much more important for personal expression than binders or book covers (think Office Space level coverage of the “uniform” jean jacket or denim purse).

To me the brown paper book covers screamed that I was too poor to get the decorated kind (covers weren’t required) so this joy at a brown paper cover is really strange to me. Furthermore, the one time I used marker to write on a binder, I badly misspelled a word and had to look at it all year, so that cured me of that bit of personal expression.

17 Peg { 08.28.12 at 4:05 pm }

Last night I covered 16 books in paper bags ( for the record Trader Joe’s bags are the perfect bag for covering). Yes, I could buy covers but the frugal side of me just can’t do it. Also, the kids love to doodle all over them and “customize” their books.

18 loribeth { 08.31.12 at 4:43 pm }

I have to admit I have never heard the term “trapper keeper” before & had to look it up. (Not sure if it’s because I’m too old, because I don’t have kids, because it’s an American thing & I’m Canadian, or maybe a combination of all these factors.) From what I can tell, you’re talking about a binder, maybe with pockets inside & perhaps a velcro flap, yes? We mostly used notebooks, but we did have binders & what we called “duotangs” (cardstock covers) for looseleaf papers when I was in jr high & high school. And yes, we did doodle on them. The duotangs often got pretty ragged by year’s end & we’d have to buy new ones for the fall, but the binders got used from year to year until they fell apart.

And yes, we did doodle on them — usually my name (written in those big puffy 1970s letters, lol) or the names of the bands we liked. Or flowers & stars, stuff like that. I didn’t have a locker until I was in high school & I don’t remember decorating it, aside from a copy of my schedule pasted up on the inside door. Of course, today they have magnetized mirrors and cool stuff like that designed specifically for your locker. No such stuff in the 1970s, certainly not in Canadian Prairie small towns. I don’t remember that we had to cover our textbooks either.

I was shopping with my mom yesterday & I actually saw special cookie cutters designed to cut your kids’ sandwiches into shapes (they also trimmed off the crusts in the process). I couldn’t believe it. Kids today are waaaaayyyyyy spoiled. ; )

19 Denver Laura { 09.05.12 at 2:32 pm }

I had a trapper keeper in 1983 that was a waterfall in the rainforest. Loved it. Never wrote on it or deocrated it. Then the TK fell out of favor but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away.

Fast forward to Jr. High. I found that turned sideways, the TK could provide an easy second shelf in my locker. Then at the end of the year, I would just hit it on one side to knock it our of place and reuse it the following year. I did that all the way through high school. It could hold an amazing amount of weight.

We had lunch boxes that we “upgraded” year over year. I had one that I decorated for my brother with stickers. I decided to peel them off a couple years ago and lo and behold – it was a Star Wars lunch box. I’m tempted to take it to work one day for lunch…

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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