To us, nothing says “middle school” quite like gel pens, slap bracelets, and people drawing that cool-looking S thing on every possible surface. Fads are a time-honored part of growing up, and for the most part, they’re stupid, harmless fun. Would you really want to live in a world where soda-flavored lip glosses and Silly Bandz never existed?
Occasionally, however, a fad becomes dangerous, distracting, or just too stupid to survive, and that’s where school administrators step in. We looked into the histories of several of our favorite fads and tried to determine why some schools banned them—and, in the process, ruined everyone’s childhoods. If you’ve ever wondered why your school principal came down so hard on JNCOs and slap bracelets, you’re about to find out.
1. Slap bracelets were great fun…provided that they were, uh, well made.
If you somehow missed out on this trend, slap bracelets were little pieces of metal (covered, thankfully, with a soft cloth) that you slapped into place on your wrist. They weren’t exactly fashionable, but, well, they slapped. Most of the fun was taking them off and putting them back on again.
Per a report in The New York Times, a high school shop teacher named Stuart Anders invented the slap bracelet while playing around with a steel ribbon. He showed his invention to a friend, and Slap Wraps were born; within seven years, they were selling millions of units in toy stores across the United States.
“It would make a perfect counter-seasonal product with multiple-purchase possibilities,” said Eugene Murtha, president of the company that sold Slap Wraps, in what is possibly the most boring sentence ever written about slap bracelets.
The big problem with slap bracelets was that they weren’t always safe. Early versions of the bracelet had a thin fabric covering a steel ribbon, but the steel could break and poke through the fabric, causing serious injuries. Thankfully, no kid ever died from slapping their bracelet on their wrist, but parents were still concerned.
The company that made Slap Wraps quickly produced a safer version of the toy in the late ‘80s, but cheap knock-offs used inexpensive materials—and put kids at risk. After one child was harmed by one of those cheaper products, the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection stepped in, recalling all slap bracelets not made by Slap Wraps.
Nevertheless, cheap substitutes still flooded the markets in other states. In 2011, students at an elementary school in Santa Rosa County, Florida, received slap bracelets as a prize for participating in a fundraiser. The bracelets were cheap knock-offs, and they had obscene pictures beneath their fabric. Anders stepped in, shipping 200 of his original Slap Wraps to the school.
“Please accept these Slap Wraps as a gift from me and think about how, at one time, this was only a thought in my mind,” Anders wrote to the students, in what is possibly the most grandiose statement ever written about slap bracelets.
Of course, many schools ban slap bracelets simply because they’re a distraction, but the takeaway is clear: If you’re going to adorn your wrist with a piece of sharp metal covered with a thin piece of cloth, make sure you’re buying from a reputable manufacturer.
2. Every ‘90s kid had a Tamagotchi virtual pet.
Ah, Tamagotchis. Back before every kid had a smartphone, these virtual pets were considered fairly high-tech. The digital display showed a tiny creature that you had to feed, play with, and otherwise nurture. As long as you checked on your pet every five or six hours during the day, it’d be totally fine (although it wouldn’t do much—Tamagotchis demanded a lot of attention, but other than looking vaguely cute, they weren’t really entertaining).
The problem: If you didn’t check in with your pet regularly, it would die. Well, Tamagotchis didn’t die, per se, but if ignored long enough, they’d sprout wings and “return to their home planet,” according to the packaging. To kids who don’t have a great understanding of death, though, that sounds an awful lot like dying.
In fact, the pets’ “wings” were only a feature on the American version of the handheld toy. Japanese Tamagotchis would display a cross and gravestone after the character’s expiration, showing kids that their negligence had resulted in the demise of their beloved pets. Apparently, Japanese schoolchildren were much more willing to confront harsh realities than their American counterparts.
Middle schoolers generally understood that their Tamagotchis weren’t real animals, but younger kids had issues. In a 1997 report by The New York Times, parents described their children as “extremely sad and depressed” over the fates of their virtual pals. One mother said her 9-year-old son “cried hysterically and went crazy.”
“The toy creates a real sense of loss and a mourning process,” Andrew Cohen, a psychologist at the Dalton School in Manhattan, told the paper. “Kids want to nurture and take care of pets—it gives them a feeling of empowerment and self-importance—but here the consequences are too high. It’s out of control.”
That seems like a fairly ridiculous conclusion in 2019, but in the late ‘90s, parents were terrified of technology.
Many schools immediately banned the pets, since anything that requires around-the-clock attention is likely to divert kids’ attention from their schoolwork. Plus, by default, Tamagotchis would beep when they needed attention. While that “feature” could be disabled, teachers had trouble figuring out where the annoying sounds were coming from—and kids were too busy feeding their virtual pets to help.
3. Gel pens were pretty awesome, but teachers hated them.
Why write with real ink when you could write with gel?
As their name implies, gel pens use a thick, water-based gel to write. They’re available in a greater variety of colors than ink pens, and they look absolutely awesome. It’s no wonder they quickly caught on with middle school kids in the late ‘90s, but there was just one problem: They just weren’t very good pens.
“The final product was not very neat,” one teacher told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2001. “A lot were sloppy.”
Gel pens also created distractions in classes, since they were, well, too cool for school. No, seriously.
“Males were covering their fingernails with ink. Writing their rapper names on themselves,” another teacher complained. “Girls were writing their best friends’ names on their arms, writing which boys they like, which bands they like.”
Many schools banned gel pens outright, while others restricted them to art classes. In some schools, however, the reasons for banning the pens were more…uh, specific.
“When I was in primary school there was this weird trend where all the girls would suck on the ends of gel pens so their tongues turned into different colours,” ChilloutBurner wrote on Reddit. “They would trade pens with each other in the school bathrooms and sneak away from the teachers and go to hidden parts of the schoolyard so they didn’t get caught …”
“One of my friends was really popular because she was the girl who sucked on the most pens and would get caught in literally every class sucking on a different gel pen, and the teachers would always have to walk her out to the nurse as she’d make herself sick and throw up. They eventually banned them.”
That seems perfectly reasonable to us.
4. POG actually started in the 1930s but came roaring back in the ‘90s.
In the early ‘90s, POGs inexplicably became the hottest toy on middle school playgrounds. They were basically just decorated cardboard discs, but they were collectible—you could find POGs featuring your favorite cartoon characters, and certain rare POGs could make you the most popular kid in school.
To play with your POGs, you’d slam a heavier disc (called a “slammer,” because creativity wasn’t really a thing back in 1994) and try to flip some of the smaller cardboard discs. The rules varied, but in some games, you could take your opponents’ POGs by flipping them.
We should note here that POGs are actually much older than you probably think. An early version of the game was invented in Hawaii in the early 1930s. Kids would play with caps of drinks flavored with passionfruit, orange, and guava, and that’s where the POG name comes from.
The game died away, but schoolteacher Blossom Galbiso reintroduced it to her students in 1991. Soon, kids across the country were playing POG.
The game was addictive, but the stakes might have been too high. POGs led to plenty of fights, since kids didn’t like giving up their rare discs to their opponents. Some schools moved quickly to get POGs off of the playground.
“It gets very competitive,” one school administrator told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “Although they were having great fun, it generated some ill will.”
“We had students who started arguing over POGs, especially younger students who didn’t really understand they could lose their caps,” another said. “I guess you could liken it to going to Las Vegas and losing your money on the table. Adults don’t like that. And children don’t like losing their chips.”
Needless to say, the bans didn’t sit well with some students. When Mary P. Hinsdale Elementary School in Winsted, Connecticut, tried to get rid of POGs, students circulated a petition. After negotiating with school officials, they arrived at a compromise: Students could trade POGs once a week, but they couldn’t actually play the game at school.
That was a rare case in which student action actually overturned a ban—but, of course, the POGs craze fizzled out a few years later anyway. We’re still holding onto our awesome collection of Power Rangers POGs in case this fad comes back.
5. JNCOs were the hallmarks of alternative kids (until they got banned).
From carpenter jeans to cargo shorts, the ‘90s had some of the stupidest legwear imaginable, but the dumbest trend of all was JNCO jeans. Still, most punk rockers and nu-metal aficionados had at least one pair.
JNCOs were basically what you’d wear to show the world that you didn’t care about mainstream fashion, and they looked the part: They had incredibly wide legs, perfect for smuggling frozen turkeys into school (what, just us?). They were made of the cheapest denim imaginable, but that was a selling point: When they inevitably tore, you could always fill the holes with homemade Korn and Limp Bizkit patches. What’s not to love?
If you were born after the heyday of Friends and AOL free trial discs, you might think that we’re overstating JNCO’s appeal. Not so: At its peak, JNCO recorded sales of $186.9 million, and in 1997, 10 percent of retailer PacSun’s business came from JNCOs. The jeans were absolutely massive (in every sense of the word).
Alas, the adults weren’t on board with the oversized jeans revolution. Orange County school districts banned JNCOs, citing the wide pant legs as a safety concern (administrators told The Los Angeles Times that students might trip over their own pants). Some school officials also worried that students would use the jeans to sneak items into classrooms (frozen turkeys, we’re looking at you).
Even so, JNCOs continued to sell until the turn of the century, when everyone collectively came to their senses and realized that Limp Bizkit is a horrible band. In 2018, JNCO ceased production.
“Due to licensing issues, JNCO will be ending production and concluding all sales through our website,” the company wrote. “We were honored to serve our vast customer base and with harsh feelings will be winding down operations. While this is an end of an era for JNCO, what JNCO stands for will continue to live on in all of our customers and fans who will carry on the spirit of our brand and all it represents.”
We love that JNCO decided to end its sales “with harsh feelings.” If there’s a better phrase to sum up the JNCO craze, we’re not sure what it is.
If you’re still hoping to get a pair for nostalgia’s sake, we’ve got some good news: JNCO’s current website claims the brand will be reintroduced, although the site has no other information. Here’s hoping that the new JNCOs will be wider than ever.