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Teachers buy everything from pencils to printer ink for their own classrooms.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

The true cost of being a teacher

7 teachers tell us what they buy for their classrooms, and how.

When you walk into a public school classroom, what do you see? Posters on the walls, baskets of scissors and glue sticks and pencils, dry erase markers, copied and stapled worksheet packets, shelves and bins of books, decorations commemorating the seasons, sometimes bean bag chairs or floor pillows, definitely some kind of big rug for the younger grades. There’s often furniture and a mini-fridge, there are tissues and Clorox wipes and sometimes a class pet.

Schools don’t typically supply this stuff. Teachers do. 94 percent of US public school teachers spend their own money on school supplies. The amount per year varies; what districts and schools provide (or, better put, don’t provide) varies.

So too do teacher salaries. The National Education Association highlighted a $40,000 discrepancy between what the average teacher makes in New York versus what one makes in Mississippi, where the average salary in 2018 was $44,926; New York’s top salary ranking drops to 17th, however, when adjusted for cost of living. Put simply, teachers are underpaid, and many are leaving education at an alarming pace. The NEA found that one-fifth of new teachers leave education within three years, and in urban areas, the percentage of teachers who leave within five years is close to half. According to the Pew Research Center, one in six teachers work second jobs.

The fact that teachers buy stuff for their classrooms is another way to say that we fail to provide teachers with the resources they need to teach our kids. That lack of resources feels to some educators like insult to injury, not just that they need to spend their own money to do their job, but that their low pay makes it hard to even afford to do their job.

School supplies are just the start of it — let’s talk about further education and professional development, about college application fees, about extra sandwiches, about books, about winter clothes, about eyeglasses, about curriculum (yes: curriculum — many districts forgo textbooks, or supply decades-old textbooks, or provide only the most bare-bones of worksheets, leaving it on teachers to cobble together their own instructional materials).

We talked to seven teachers across the country to learn what they spend their own money on, how they try to save, how they strategize any school allotments, and more. We learned that some Title 1 schools — where at least 40 percent of students come from low-income families — receive some kind of classroom stipend, but that’s not a universal reality, and they typically can’t count on much of a PTA presence either.

We learned that many teachers fundraise for supplies through sites like DonorsChoose, except if they’re in a district that bans crowdfunding. We learned that educational materials purchased at online marketplace Teachers Pay Teachers fill in the many gaps created, in part, by insufficient district curriculum, though most of the teachers we talked to wish that their districts would just give them something to work with. These interviews reveal a bigger picture of school funding inequity, undervalued educators (three-quarters of whom are women), and a systemic economic deprioritization of education.

These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

The teacher who striked last year

3rd grade teacher Hannah Perkins (second from left) buys school supplies for all her students.
Hannah Perkins

Name: Hannah Perkins

City: Phoenix, Arizona

Years teaching: 6

School type: Public, Title 1

Grade and subject: 3rd grade, all subjects

Students this year: 32

Amount school allots each classroom: $200

Amount spent out of pocket at the beginning of each school year: $300

Amount spent out of pocket replenishing supplies throughout the year: $200

What the money’s spent on: School supplies for 32 kids, organizational tools

When the kids came in for Meet the Teacher day, I already had markers, pencils, crayons, colored pencils, and whiteboard markers. I had folders and binders already. Part of that is being at a Title 1 school. A lot of those things, parents either can’t afford, or they have so many kids to buy for. I try to lessen the load of what I expect them to give me.

The big misconception [with the Arizona teachers’ strike last year] was that teachers were complaining that they weren’t getting paid enough. A pay raise was one of the five “demands,” as they called them, but it wasn’t even the first demand.

In Arizona, we’re always being told how we’re last in education, or we’re last in this or that, but our schools aren’t equitable in the kinds of resources we’re given. The biggest concern [of the strike] was the resources, and how schools are not given enough equitable resources to be successful. At my old school, we had a curriculum from the ’80s for social studies. It’s really hard to teach to the standard of what the state wants when they don’t provide you with the curriculum that will support that. That’s why you have schools who are consistently A-plus, and then you have schools who aren’t. Part of that is, well, okay, what do they have available to them to use?

My district now has updated curriculum, but the standards are always changing. The level of rigor is always changing. Oftentimes, that curriculum doesn’t meet the needs of what the kids have to do. We end up having to make our own assessments, or we supplement stories, or supplement activities. Sometimes you have to spend more time, more hours trying to make sure that it’s rigorous enough.

Have you heard of Teachers Pay Teachers? It’s teacher-made resources for teachers. You can find stuff that’s free, and some teachers will sell [curriculum] units. There are times where I’ve purchased different units so that I didn’t have to spend hours and hours trying to make up my own thing. I guess that sounds kind of selfish. I took someone else’s really hard work, and I’m using it. But sometimes it’s the best of what I can do because I don’t have all the hours in the world. And honestly, I have a life outside of school, and I don’t think that’s fair that I have to always go so far above and beyond, and miss out on my own personal life.

When the strike ended, my grandma said the same thing [as the headlines]: “You guys won.” I don’t want to say we didn’t. I think we set a precedent for the people in office to really take a look at us and say, “Okay, they’re serious.” Even with the raise, they made it sound like, “Oh, teachers are getting the whole 20 percent in the upcoming year.” And it isn’t like that.

Most districts gave their teachers a 5 percent increase of a raise, and then the following year it will be a little bit more, and a little bit more. [The average salary for Arizona public school teachers in 2017-2018 was $48,723; in terms of teacher salaries, the state ranked 45th.] There is more money to be given. And also, that money is given to districts. It’s the district’s decision to do with the money what it wants. Some districts get that money and can put it in other places.

It goes like the saying: We won a battle, but we didn’t win the war. It was a tiny, tiny part to really open eyes. I did a lot of the, you know, standing outside the schools, and we had people yelling at us, “Go back to work,” and, “Oh, stop complaining,” and this and that. But at the end of the day, it was some kind of change. It wasn’t necessarily the change we need at the moment, but it was something, and that’s worth celebrating.

The teacher who bought her students clothes

Name: Ryann Dvorak

City: Austin, Texas

Years teaching: 7

School type: Public

Grade and subject: 3rd grade, math and science

Students this year: 40

Amount allotted by PTA: $200

Amount spent out of pocket at the beginning of this school year: $100 to $150

Amount spent out of pocket when starting a new grade or subject in previous years: $300

What the money’s spent on: Instructional materials, classroom library, activities, printer ink

I’m pretty frugal. When teachers retire, you know, you’ve just got to be fast. What’s in the hallway, and who’s giving away what — you have to get out there. If you’re not outgoing, then you probably won’t be able to find things. I’ll look on Facebook Marketplace, I’ll look on Craigslist, I’ll barter and plead my case, “Please donate.”

Have you heard of DonorsChoose? In my teaching career, I’ve always worked at Title 1 schools, except for the school I’m at now. Title 1 schools, usually they have a lot — well, it’s weird. They usually have a lot more supplies, like notebooks, papers, pencils, they’ll have that for you. But they won’t necessarily give you money at the beginning of the year to help you set up your classroom. At my last school [in Arizona], I got $40. And families don’t really give you much money through PTA fundraising. You don’t have a whole lot of money to play with, and so you don’t really feel supported, or like you can ask for money from the school somehow.

[Back in Arizona] I used DonorsChoose to get literacy kits, and a caterpillar/butterfly garden growing kit, which is fun for first graders. It’s amazing because sometimes you do get strangers that, out of their heart, give you money. But a lot of times, if there’s a deadline coming and you don’t [meet the fundraising goal], then the money will be returned to donors, and then your project won’t be funded. So you feel pressured to share it on your Facebook page, or reach out to family or friends, and tell the staff about it, just to let them know, “Hey, if anyone wants to donate, that’d be great.” A lot of times it is people from my Facebook that end up giving me money. It’s really nice, DonorsChoose does match. But you need to get those donations first.

My very, very, very first year was my most expensive year for a lot of reasons. One, because I had to build everything. And also, it’s your first year, you’re excited, you want to get absolutely everything. You don’t really know what you need, so you overbuy. Back then I was a little bit stubborn and didn’t want to spend the money on Teachers Pay Teachers. So I would create everything and spend extra money for crafty stuff, where I should have just bought it all on Teachers Pay Teachers.

At that school [in upstate New York] I taught English to Somalian refugees. They had just arrived, and didn’t really have a lot of clothes. Some of my kids would come to school in cleats, they would wear Halloween costumes throughout the year. They needed the clothes. So I would go to Salvation Army, and I’d go on Wednesdays because it was Red Tag Sale Wednesdays, and I’d purchase some clothes for the kids. It’s iffy, because you don’t want to offend parents; but at the same time, they’re wearing the same thing every single day. And I felt I had a duty to help them out a little bit. You get to love them, and you care about them.

I spent probably over $1,000 dollars that year. They also didn’t have any experience with snow, and Syracuse is really cold. So I did buy some sleds for them to go sledding for the first time ever. I had to get mittens and gloves and scarves for some of them — they didn’t have appropriate clothing to survive in the blizzards of Syracuse. They also had never experienced a lot of fruits before. One time we had a unit on nutrition, so I bought kiwi and a bunch of other types of fruits to try out. And it was worth it, you know, just to see them like, “Wow, this is cool.”

I’m most surprised now about how much I have to spend on Clorox, and that’s the thing that I’m most annoyed about too. I wasn’t expecting to spend that much money on cleaning my classroom all the time. I wish there was an endless supply, but it’s on me to do that. Because it directly affects everybody. If they’re sick, they’re not in school. If I’m sick, then I have to get a sub, you know?

I have nine sick days and personal days that I can use throughout the year. If you use those days up, you can get a sub — but you’re not going to get paid that day.

The teacher-librarian going back to school

Librarian and teacher Scott Martin-Rowe with his books.
Scott Martin-Rowe

Name: Scott Martin-Rowe

City: Los Angeles

Years teaching: 15

School type: Public, Title 1

Grade and subject: 9th-12th grade, librarian (previously: 9th-12th grade, English)

Students This Year: 450

Amount spent out of pocket at the beginning of this school year: $150

What the money’s spent on: A lot of extra lined paper, pens, pencils, organizer charts, books

What I spent money on [as an English teacher] more than anything is books for my own classroom library. A lot of those I’ll buy through Amazon, and try and find used. I use DonorsChoose a lot. I’ve probably gotten about $8,000 worth of stuff through DonorsChoose in the last five or six years.

Sometimes DonorsChoose will take a while to get funded. So if I have a kid who I’m having a hard time getting them reading, but then there’s a certain book series that they get into, and I only have the first book of the series, and there’s three more books, I might just purchase the next three books myself so that we don’t lose that momentum with them reading. It’s hard to get things purchased through the school because there’s a whole system you have to go through. Sometimes it’s easier to whip out my credit card, and order it, and just, okay, here it is.

When I first started teaching, I put together this big packet of poems for this poetry unit, and I took it down to the copy room. And I said, “Hey, I need 120 copies of this.” And it was like, 40 pages. And [the administrative assistant] said, “There’s no way. I can’t make all those copies. It’s not going to happen.” So I was like, all right, I’m going to Kinko’s. And off I went. That was something where I realized, oh, I guess if I’m going to do this, I better be prepared to buy it. I learned later that the trick is just to take them in a few poems at a time, and then you get them all and just staple them yourself.

I just became the school librarian this year, and the teacher-librarian position means that I have to go get a teacher-librarian credential. There’s only four programs in the area that they recommended. One was Cal State Long Beach, which is where I’m going to go, but that’s $3,000 a semester. Or you could do USC, which is $10,000 a year. So I have this quote-unquote — I wouldn’t call it a promotion, it’s the same salary and same schedule — but, for this new position, I now have to go get another credential in order to do that. It’d be nice if the district paid for that, being that I have to have it, and they hired me as the new librarian. But yeah. It is what it is.

It’s kind of indirectly paid for because by taking the classes I accrue what are called salary points, and those will raise my salary. But at the outset, I’m paying for school. I have to wait until I get a certain number [of salary points], and only then can I start collecting on it.

For the most part, our students are able to apply to college for free because of the waivers through College Board, or through the UC system and the Cal State system. But I have floated students money before and said, “I’ll pay for your application fee.” Especially students who just miss that cut-off number. Their family makes, you know, $500 more than the cutoff. “Just pay me back down the road or something.” Stuff like that. I know some other teachers have done that as well.

The teacher who picks up side gigs

A blonde woman in a school photo
6th grade math teacher Stephanie Ledak buys “tons” of post-its and other supplies for her classroom.

Name: Stephanie Ledak

City: Austin, Texas

Years teaching: 6

School type: Public

Grade and subject: 6th grade, math

Students this year: 150

Amount spent out of pocket at the beginning of the school year: $300 to $350

Amount spent out of pocket replenishing supplies throughout the year: $200

What the money’s spent on: Tons of Expo dry erase markers, tons of Post-Its, curriculum

[My school provides] plain white copy paper, some pencils. We all get one stapler and one pencil sharpener, and I think they hand you four Expos, some sticky notes — but not nearly enough of what you need. It’s like, “We’ll give you enough as if you were going back to school,” I feel like, but not as if you were teaching kids.

I used to work at a Title 1 school, and I would always have snacks with me. If they were hungry, they could come to my room and grab something, no questions asked. Sometimes I’d buy some football players food before their games because they hadn’t eaten since lunch. I’d bring stuff from home, make an extra sandwich when I’d make myself a sandwich. A kid’s going to need it, and I never want a kid to be in a position where they’re hungry and don’t have food.

At my old district, we weren’t allowed to [fundraise through DonorsChoose]. They were like, “No, you can’t do that. It’s not allowed.” So I’ve never been able to even attempt it because I was told not to do it. I honestly don’t know why. Like, why would the district not allow you to fundraise for your classroom?

The biggest shock for me was buying my curriculum, and my activities for my kids. It’s $2 here and there, here and there. But by the end of the school year, I probably spend $200-plus just buying curriculum, where I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I need these activities, I don’t have time to make them, I’m just going to go buy them.” And we don’t have textbooks, actually. So I’m pulling from any place I can get.

The district tries to give you resources. But they’re just worksheets. We all know that it’s the bare minimum. If you’re doing what’s best for kids, you’re probably not using all of their stuff. I honestly don’t know any teacher who uses any curriculum that their school gives them. None of it is good. It’s not fun, it’s not engaging, it’s not strong enough, it’s not all of these things that we’re supposed to do.

I really wish the district would just provide good curriculum. I know that sounds crazy, but having to make up every activity I do every single day [and having to build my own textbook] is a lot of work. It’s hours and money.

Honestly, Teachers Pay Teachers is the best source. It’s a lot of my personal money that goes into buying curriculum and activities to the point that I’ve asked for gift cards for Christmas. I’m like, “Hey, you want to buy me a gift card for Teachers Pay Teachers?” And my mom’s like, “Wait, what?” I’m like, “No, for real. That’s where my money goes. That would save me so much money.”

I pick up any side job I possibly can. If they’re like, “Oh, we need somebody to do this, we’ll pay you,” I’m like, “I’ll do it.” I don’t care how many hours I’m at school. I’m probably one of the few teachers I know who doesn’t have a second job. I kind of refuse to have one. I know teachers get underpaid, I just don’t want to spend all my time doing other jobs. So I try to tutor kids at school, be on different committees that are paid, and get money in that way.

But that’s very rare. Most of my teacher friends have a second job on top of their main job. Sometimes seasonal work, but a lot of people work at Best Buy, they’re referees for something, like volleyball. I know some teachers who are Uber drivers and Lyft drivers. A lot of teachers do Instacart because they can just put their headphones in, go shop, and be done with it.

The teacher with three jobs

Vocal music teacher Aislinn Call in her classroom.
Aislinn Call

Name: Aislinn Call

City: Fort Mill, South Carolina

Years Teaching: 20

School Type: Public

Grade and subject: 6th-8th grade, vocal music

Students This Year: 180

Yearly stipend allotted by the district: $275

Amount spent out of pocket at previous schools: Upward of $500

I have to say, out of pocket, my district now doesn’t really expect me to spend a whole lot. I have a fund, and my big expenses like T-shirts for my honors group or field trips, things like that, are paid for by the parents. I probably go through $500 [on sheet music] a year, I’d say, and that’s covered by my district. I just put in the school credit card when it comes time to order.

I’ve been in other districts when I taught in New York, that are completely different. I had no budget. Everything was on my own. In New York I probably spent $500 a year on my own. The burden was very much on the teacher, and the school district just didn’t have the money for it. If you wanted any kind of program, then you had to fund it yourself. So the way I’m set up right now is really good.

But here I have a very well-to-do community. Our demographic is about as close to private school as you can get without paying for it, but it’s traditional public. I have super involved parents that are always interested in, “What can we help with, what can we do, you name it, it’s done.” The region I’m in is extremely fast-developing. We’re building a new high school, elementary school, or middle school every year. We have Duke Energy nuclear plants very close by, which supports the schools tremendously through their tax dollars. Where if you drive maybe half an hour, 45 minutes down the road, you’re going to find much less fortunate, much more rural districts where they don’t have the resources that we do.

Parents move here for the schools. We’re consistently the No. 1 or No. 2 district in the whole state in terms of test scores and rankings and all that stuff. I think that the district definitely feels pressure from the community to live up to that. Like, “We’re going to move here for this school, and so we expect this, this, and this.” I think parents would be horrified to find out if teachers had to pay for their own supplies, or their own music, or anything.

I do [work three jobs], because I love teaching. I’ve taught for 20 years, but it does not pay the bills. I’m a single mom: teacher by day, cocktail waitress on the weekends, and then I got my real estate license over the summer, so I’ve been selling houses as well. I work probably between 75 and 80 hours a week, I’d say. Although, I did just put in my two weeks notice at the bar, because it’s been running me ragged. Thursdays I was working at the bar until 1, 2 in the morning, and then getting up at 6 for school. It was rough.

I’ve thought about [leaving teaching]. If real estate takes off, and I end up making as much as teaching or more, then I would switch over, simply because I would love to just be able to do one job, be good at that job, and give it all my energy. It’s hard to be spread so thin, you know? I always laughed at the bar when people were like, “Well, what’s a fun thing to go and do, what’s good for nightlife?” I don’t know. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t do anything. At night I’m either here or I’m sleeping.

Teachers still don’t make what they should make, being expected to have a master’s-level professional degree. In New York, it’s a necessity. You have to have a master’s degree in order to have a professional certificate in teaching. Down here in the South, it’s not mandatory, but it comes with more pay if you do.

I mean, I love teaching. I’m glad that I got into it. It’s been really good to me. I feel like I’ve changed a lot of lives, and they’ve changed mine, and that’s a good thing.

The teacher invested in buying her kids books

2nd Grade teacher Emily Erwin-McGuire in her classroom with her library.
Emily Erwin-McGuire

Name: Emily Erwin-McGuire

City: Bronx, New York

Years Teaching: 5

School Type: Public charter, Title 1

Grade and subject: 2nd grade, leads English and language arts

Students this year: 26

Amount spent during first year teaching: $500 or $600

Amount New York City reimburses each classroom through Teacher’s Choice: $250

The $250 [the city gives] is not enough to get a classroom up and running. Society should value teachers more, and give teachers more of what they need. Every class, every student should have a beautiful classroom. It shouldn’t just be the schools that have money, or the teachers that choose to spend their own money, which they do not have a lot of.

Yeah, families expect [teachers to be provided with supplies and resources]. But the way that I’m feeling is that they should be able to expect that. And it’s not the school’s fault. It’s not the family’s fault, and it’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s that, as much money as we charge in taxes, we don’t put that tax money toward our schools.

In many schools, and especially in more affluent schools, the expectations are that the children are individually using their items. For us the expectation is, school supplies help our school not spend as much money, and we’ll give items to the places that we need to give it. But this is not Johnny’s pencil. This is not Johnny’s notebook. This is the school’s notebook.

Where I work, I would not be comfortable asking for donations of anything from parents, both logistically — many of our parents don’t speak English — but also ethically, working in a community with such high poverty. I don’t think that it’s right to ask for parents to donate anything to anyone else’s children, even if it is to their child’s classroom. It’s not a good look.

As a teacher, you learn to be a hoarder, and you learn to stop. If you drive a car in the suburbs, and you see something on the side of the road, you stop the car.

Because we are a Title 1 school, we can go to Project Cicero, which is this nonprofit that provides high quality literature to Title 1 schools. You go to this giant hotel ballroom in Midtown [Manhattan], and you can bring two suitcases. You and 200 other educators go in this room for 45 minutes. There are thousands and thousands of educators that converge upon this place across a whole weekend, and just grab books. That’s a place where you have to do some really polite elbowing, like, “No, I want that book. I had it first.” It’s a little Black Friday.

I spend the most on my classroom library. For example, this one Amazon order, I got the entire Artemis Fowl series at like $9 a book. I probably spent $90 on books this one day where I was like, “Well, we need these books for our library. My children need to read these.” Which is overkill, and I really can’t afford it. But it’s hard to say no when it’s something so wonderful. You can feel as frustrated as you want about having to buy $85 worth of table caddies. But I feel really joyous when I can give them something like a really great class library.

And the thing is, I’m proud in some ways of how much money I have spent on my books. If I can give that to kids, I’ll spend that money. I’ll eat rice another day, if I can get a really wonderful book that this kid will really, really love in their hands.

The teacher who bought portable fireplaces, migraine patches, and one pair of eyeglasses

Reading and writing teacher Deanna O’Brien at a fundraiser.
Deanna O’Brien

Name: Deanna O’Brien

City: Chicago

Years teaching: 25

School type: Public

Grade and subject: 8th grade, reading and writing

Students this year: 100

Amount allotted by the school: $250

Amount spent out of pocket at the beginning of the school year: $400 to $500

What the money’s spent on: Room decor, supply section for kids who don’t have supplies

I like to decorate my room to make it more aesthetically pleasing and comfortable. So I buy lamps, I buy bouncy chairs, I buy a rug every year. I buy name plates to put on the desks and lockers. One year I bought this couch for the back of my room, with the chairs, and the rug. It had to have been almost close to $700 that year.

A lot of times things get ruined. The chairs get broken quite a bit. I try to explain to my students, it’s like setting up a whole new classroom every year. Someone had gum on my rug last year. I was hoping to save that rug, but then the gum was on it, so I couldn’t save it. Then you have to buy a whole new rug, and that costs 30 to 40 bucks just for the rug.

I even bought portable fireplaces last year. Oh my gosh, those portable fireplaces. It was always freezing in my room, and they couldn’t adjust the temperature well enough. So I bought two of those to have in different corners so the kids weren’t freezing. And you can’t write off those things, because those are personal use. Not for my personal use, but for the students’. I couldn’t write that off as a school supply.

The school doesn’t really provide any supplies. Maybe some copy paper at the beginning of the year, but last year I had to buy my own. They ordered some, but it didn’t come in, and I needed it because I create my own curriculum. I don’t have a textbook per se. I make it all up, I create my own units, so I have to make a lot of copies. I had to buy electric staplers, and my own electric pencil sharpeners, and things like that. They used to supply me with my ink. This year, no.

Last year, they said they would hook us up to the copy machine in the copy room, which was a very old copy machine and never worked. You couldn’t rely on that. People started buying their own printer/copiers. You do what you’ve got to do. I was fortunate to get a computer three years ago, but most teachers don’t even have their own computer. Luckily, the principal at the time got me one. She was my student-teacher a long time ago, so maybe that had something to do with it. I don’t know. I got lucky.

Every time we test, I buy food. Back in the day, we had principals that provided us with carts of snacks for standardized testing. Now we’re on our own. I’ll buy packs and packs of cheese and crackers, fruit snacks, bottles of water.

I buy boxes of these migraine patches. They sell them for kids with fevers. They’re a gel and they stick to your forehead, and are cooling. That’s become my thing lately, buying these migraine patches and giving them to kids when they have headaches. It helps them so much. I always say, “Make sure you have a headache because these are really expensive.”

Deanna O’Brien’s classroom library.
Deanna O’Brien

I bought eyeglasses for a student once. It was a big purchase, like $300. And I couldn’t use insurance because I’m not the parent. Myself and another teacher first noticed that he kept squinting. He said he was having a hard time seeing, so we kept trying to get the parent to take him, but she was busy. She just, she never did.

And then all of a sudden it was right before testing and I said, “He needs to have glasses before this test.” This was a promotion-based test for him. If he didn’t pass it, he would have not graduated. So I addressed the parent and said, “You know, your child really needs to see the eye doctor, and he says that you’re busy. I will take him, do I have consent?” And she gave consent.

Oh my god, [when he put his glasses on for the first time] he said, “I can see. I can see trees, I can see things out the window.” He really needed them. The eye doctor said, “I cannot believe you waited this long.”

He comes back to visit regularly. He’s an appreciative kid.

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