Nine Is Enough When School Shopping

Jeremiah Coleman, 5, tries on new jeans as his mother, Janine Coleman, checks the fit. The Colemans shop for nine for back to school.
Jeremiah Coleman, 5, tries on new jeans as his mother, Janine Coleman, checks the fit. The Colemans shop for nine for back to school. (By Mark Gong -- The Washington Post)
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Some things about the way we live our lives -- sometimes a job, sometimes a situation, sometimes a view of life -- are close to unique. Almost . . . extreme.

You think you had a rough week, getting the pens-pads-socks-and-shoes-shopping extravaganza done, then rocketing Junior off to begin the school year.

Let Janine Coleman make you feel better. She's getting eight kids off to school. And herself.

"This is not a normal household," the Northeast Washington mom warns a visitor.

Jeremiah, Tyrone, James, Tiara, Doyle, Terry Jr. and Ana-aelice are beginning kindergarten and grades 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 11, respectively. The eldest, Ronald, started freshman year last week at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. Coleman, who received a bachelor's degree in May after dropping out of college 20-plus years ago, is working toward an MBA at Strayer University.

The family has lived on dad Terry Coleman's single income since 2002, when Janine was laid off from her government job as a program analyst. Purchasing supplies on nine lists is a major financial squeeze, so back-to-school shopping happens only on payday -- for a few items at a time.

Last Friday Janine counted out seven $20s for the first round of shopping, and the Colemans hit Family Dollar for toothbrushes, deodorant, socks, toilet paper and -- most important -- a Sharpie pen to mark whose is whose. A trip to the mall followed Saturday to purchase school uniforms. The kids must wait until next week for notebooks and pencils.

"This isn't even half of what they need," Janine Coleman said, glancing at her overflowing shopping cart. "This is just to get us through the first week."

As the eight Colemans ran through the aisles, they got their own ideas of what they needed for school. Tiara spent several minutes scouring racks of colored lip gloss before placing a $3 tube in the cart. "All the ladies need lip gloss," she said.

A few aisles over, Tyrone triumphantly plucked a $4 can of Axe body fragrance, complete with instructions to use "under your arms and it's only a matter of time before some sensitive, sexy ladies want to touch the rest of you."

"You don't need that," Terry Jr. told his little brother. "You're just trying to be a cool man like me."

Initially James took control of the cart, a responsibility Janine soon seized after she saw several items she hadn't approved. She removed three tubes of Crest in favor of a generic brand ("You don't need no brand-name stuff, child," she scolded) as well as several toys that found their way in.

Even at the register, items in the cart had no guarantee of making the final cut. Seven three-subject notebooks never made it because Janine figured she could find them cheaper elsewhere. Tiara's lip gloss stayed behind, as did the body spray. As increasingly grumpy-looking customers lined up, Janine handpicked items for the cashier to scan. The final tally: $139.18.

Each of the kids had a moment of sulking but ended up satisfied with what they got. A leftover $1.50 bought Jeremiah a slingshot.

"I try to have fun with them and buy treats occasionally," Janine said. "They didn't ask to be put in a large family. It may not be normal, but we do okay."

-- Megan Greenwell, staff writer

© 2006 The Washington Post Company