“You just got like a Trapper Keeper full of appointments, right?”
— A line from the immortal Wet Hot American Summer, mocking and admiring the Trapper Keeper all at once. (Free idea: A Wet Hot American Summer-branded Trapper Keeper.) It became a kitsch icon, but the road to its success was unusual, in that its manufacturer, Mead, didn't expect it to be nearly as successful as it became. According to a 2013 Mental Floss article that's something of a Bible on the subject, the Trapper Keeper was responsible for more than $100 million in Mead's sales and moved 75 million units. For such a cool device, it came about in a reliably nerdy way—thanks to a bunch of market research.
Five bands that share the name "Trapper Keeper"
- In New York, an '80s covers band called (wait for it) Trapper Keeper knows a thing or two about dressing like preppy kids and singing "Eye of the Tiger."
- The Vermont punk band Trapper Keeper has a bunch of releases on its Bandcamp page, though they appear to have gone inactive.
- The Louisiana funk band Trapper Keeper isn't afraid to let things get all loosey-goosey, which makes the name somewhat ironic. Here's a YouTube clip of them playing.
- In Arizona, a '90s covers band, also called Trapper Keeper, isn't afraid to cover Sublime if the mood strikes them.
- Indiana's very own Lisa Frank and the Trapper Keepers are also pretty focused on keeping the '90s dream alive. They have two members named Steve.
Why Trapper Keepers Drive Teachers &!&@*!% Crazy
The Trapper Keeper did something really interesting for an organizer: it was hip. Years before Nike proved that cool kids love inanimate objects that could be used as status symbols, Mead's Trapper Keeper was already there, with an easy way to express one's personality and style in the classroom.
But there was just one problem: They frustrated teachers for a wide variety of reasons. Among the problems? Their size, the fact that the organizers once used velcro, and the fact that there were multiplication tables inside of them. As a result, schools would ban these beacons of efficiency because said efficiency benefits could not be trusted in the hands of 11-year-olds.
It's a situation that, to this day, confuses the heck out of some education professionals.
"Yes, schools are stricter about certain things than they used to be, but this one threw me," wrote Inside Higher Ed blogger (and community college dean) Matt Reed. "First peanut butter, now this. There had to be a reason."
Perhaps the best explanation for the ban comes from a 2001 Washington Post article, which points out that many teachers find the devices' large size and relative complexity a deterrent when it comes to getting stuff done in the classroom.
"You ask a student to take out a worksheet, and by the time they open all the sections out and find it, the Trapper Keeper has reached over to another person's desk," argued fourth-grade teacher Lucinda Mann, who took particular issue with the way that the binders flapped out on desks.
The other argument that the article highlighted was that teachers believed that the devices failed at their primary task—organizing information.
"The kids with Trapper Keepers tend to throw the papers in and don't organize. They can't find anything," explained sixth-grade English teacher Janice Kopp.
Schools just can't handle Trapper Keepers
The issue might not even be the Trapper Keepers themselves, but the facilities of the school. A random search of actual school-supply documents emphasizes that the issue may be one of physical space.
"ABSOLUTELY NO LARGE NOTEBOOKS OR TRAPPER KEEPERS—they don’t fit in lockers," says one sixth-grade school-supply list, from Ohio's LaBrae Middle School.
"No trapper keepers or roller backpacks—they don’t fit in the lockers," a list for West Clark, Indiana's second-grade class says in giant, red, Comic Sans type.
"NO TRAPPER KEEPERS (Will not fit in desk)," says the top of a school-supply list for Brillion Public Schools in Wisconsin.
As it turns out, lockers are expensive. Desks aren't cheap, either. Making room for all those students and all their school supplies? That stuff costs money. So it doesn't matter if the rules sound arbitrary and stupid and obsessed with order over taste—ultimately, kids and their retro-minded parents have to live with the fact that schools are not going to let kids have Trapper Keepers.
Lockers and desks are small and you just have to deal with it, Chappie.
These days, the modern equivalent of the Trapper Keeper may in fact be the tablet and the smartphone. These devices can feasibly organize millions more things than a Tapper Keeper ever could.
And just like the Trapper Keeper, schools and teachers love banning these things, because they think students will get distracted.
Back in October, a notable incident of police violence took place after a South Carolina student refused to give up her cell phone to a teacher. The girl wouldn't move from her desk, so police officer Ben Fields came in, and that's when the fireworks started—fireworks that were caught on cell phones held by nearby students.
The issue of electronics in the hands of students is one of the hottest topics in education at the moment.
In the United Kingdom, the government is considering taking a step with phones or other forms of technology that not even the Trapper Keeper ever faced—an outright ban on electronic devices in schools mandated at the federal level. Tom Bennett, the government's Department for Education discipline tsar, is currently analyzing the issue.
"Technology is transforming society and even classrooms—but all too often we hear of lessons being disrupted by the temptation of the smartphone," Bennett said in a recent statement. "Learning is hard work and children are all too aware of this. So when they have a smartphone in their pocket that offers instant entertainment and reward, they can be easily distracted from their work."
Now, there's some research to back this line of thinking up, but as a former kid who gained a lot from technology, I wonder if this issue goes both ways.
What if the problem here is less an issue of students being annoying or distracted and more about schools failing to engage them in a way that speaks their language? What if all those years ago, teachers embraced Trapper Keepers as useful tools that taught students important lessons about organization—a problem that, along with mathematics, science, and spelling, is something applicable to everyday life as an adult?
And what if teachers found ways to embrace electronics as part of the courses, rather than just another annoyance? Or is that just crazy talk?
Every student that owns an iPad or another shade of tablet should commit an act of silent protest and buy a Trapper Keeper case for their tablets. It's the perfect sneer against humorless teachers who focus too intently on banning useful items.
Educators would be a lot better off by learning not to be annoyed by useful things.