If you think back-to-school supplies are all about pencils, notebooks and backpacks, then you haven’t been around middle school girls lately.
The shopping list for 11-year-old Lauren Herinckx included wallpaper, shag rug, shelf, message board, pencil holder, mirror — and the must-have showpiece — a motion-sensitive, battery-operated LED chandelier.
She hauled these items in a plastic bag recently to decorate her first “home away from home” — a 46-inch-high metal locker at Lakewood Middle School in Overland Park. Her mother, Anita Herinckx, estimated the total cost at approximately $25 after using coupons and browsing the sales at a local craft store.
“It’s a nice thing to do for that transition between elementary school and middle school,” she says. “I don’t figure I’m going to be doing it for very long.”
There’s nothing new about kids taping up a favorite poster or pictures of their friends inside these skinny, metal storage bins. But during the last several years, locker decorating has exploded from a homemade undertaking into a commercial industry where products like slam-resistant pink pencil cups, beaded lighting fixtures and “curtains” of sparkly plastic flowers are sold widely at discount and office supply stores, specialty stores and card shops.
Two moms in Dallas, Christi Sterling and JoAnn Brewer, are credited with starting the first line of mix-and-match locker accessories after discovering that existing items were functional but not pretty and fun. In 2010, they developed a product line called LockerLookz “that took off like wildfire,” according to company spokeswoman Lisa Orman.
LockerLookz partnered with craft company Darice in 2013, and now their products are sold in all 50 states, Canada and Australia. Orman says the new line is so eagerly anticipated each summer that preteens sometimes grab items out of shipping boxes before store clerks can put them on display.
Schools frown on tape and glue, so nearly everything attaches with magnets, including pre-cut “wallpaper” panels with punch-out spaces to accommodate locker hardware. These come in a variety of patterns: floral, leopard-print, zebra-striped and geometric.
“I’m totally all for it,” says Denise Muir, who admits to taping a Shaun Cassidy poster inside her locker when growing up. “Middle school isn’t always very fun, and it’s nice to open your locker and see all your stuff. I think that makes a difference in your day.”
As the mother of girls in sixth and eighth grade at Aubry Bend Middle School in Overland Park, Muir sprang for blue rugs, green- and white-trimmed mirrors with matching pencil holders, vinyl-coated wire shelves and chandeliers.
The older daughter, however, declined an offer of wallpaper. “She had a polka-dot print last year that looked really pretty, but it got ripped by her books,” Muir says.
Despite the abundance of ready-made products, plenty of do-it-yourself decor was being organized in the hallways of Lakewood Middle School during Cougar Connection Day on Aug. 8, when students received their locker assignments, picked up pre-ordered supplies and had photo IDs taken. One mom was helping her daughter position a package of striped cake doilies inside a locker, while another trimmed a piece of holographic silver foam board to fit.
“We bought it all the first year,” Kim Comeau says. But now her eighth-grade daughter, Avery, is handcrafting many items: a garland of scrapbook-papered circles on a string, spray-painted jumbo clothespins with magnets glued to the back, and an old mirror coated with chalkboard paint for messages.
Beyond wallpaper and mirrors, dry erase boards are one of the most popular items. Because where else would you scrawl inspirational expressions like, “Hi! Waz up?” or “Normal people are so weird.”
“They put a lot of themselves into it,” observes Lakewood Middle School Principal Scott Currier, who says siblings probably are more competitive than classmates. It’s mostly a girl thing, he says, and judging by the clusters of girls drifting from one locker to the next, it’s also a social thing.
“The girls were having as much fun checking out what all their friends had done as decorating their own lockers,” Herinckx says.
The phenomenon is not limited to Johnson County schools. At Notre Dame de Sion in Kansas City, students are allowed to decorate, and they do. “Yes, the whole shebang,”says Emily Taylor, communications director.
At Antioch Middle School in Gladstone, Principal Stephanie Schnoebelen says, “We do have quite a bit — the mirrors, the shelving, the personal touches — they’re pretty cute.”
The practice is more subdued at Center Middle School in Kansas City, where sixth-graders share lockers. Bailey Calvin, an eighth-grader there, says most of her friends still put up a little something. Last year she had wallpaper, and this year she’s “probably” adding a chandelier and a message board. And her seventh-grade brother?
“I don’t really use my locker all that much,” says Gabe Calvin, explaining there are only a few minutes between classes, and he keeps most of his stuff in a book bag. As for his friends? “Maybe they have something useful like a mirror,” he says, “but I never particularly look at what other guys put in their lockers.”
Heads up, boys! That attitude is about to be challenged. Having developed nearly every possible inch of locker real estate (did we mention glitter-coated picture frames and wall sconces?), companies like LockerLookz are now eyeing the opposite sex for a future gender-neutral line.
At Lakewood Middle School, Susan Mulvaney is already on top of it. As the mother of twin sixth-graders, she bought a pink fun rug and black and white wallpaper for her daughter’s rainbow-themed locker, and she’s outfitting her son’s with a University of Kansas theme: a red furry rug; red and blue wrapping paper for the inside walls; and KU sports magnets.
Adults who use lockers are another possible market. “We’ve heard anecdotally that some women who are nurses or have health club memberships use our products just for fun,” Orman says. “Some of the items are sophisticated enough.”
And while decorating the insides of lockers might make the middle grades an easier experience, most schools have rules against decorating the outside. Therein lies an unsolved problem. The hard part, observes one tween, is remembering which locker is yours.