The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"We are too civil to books.  For a few golden sentences we will turn over and actually read a volume of four or five hundred pages."...  ...Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Commentary of the Day - September 29, 2004:  On Bookbags (Heavy) and Modern Life.  Guest commentary by James R. Brown.

It's about 5:00 PM at our house in South Carolina, a tranquil afternoon, not yet cool, but I think the nasty heat of summer is done.  My wife Jane and I are sharing a small pot of Colombian coffee and the Sunday New York Times, our pleasure of Tuesday afternoons, delivered by mail. (This is the provinces, so you wait on the Times).

As I put down the Review and Opinion section, the still air is broken by a series of crashes, evenly spaced, a kind of loud smacking sound, heavy.  It seems to come from the stairwell.

A construction crew?  Rowdy teens vandalizing the house.  A heavy metal band warming up?

No, it's Ellen, home from her after school piano lessons.  Ellen is ten, a thin kid who likes to play tag and catch frogs.  She has a dog named Mr. Finn, whom she fiercely loves; and, she is curious about eye shadow, but her Mom won't buy her any.

She also staggers daily up the stairs with her own personal albatross, a book bag that weighs, on average, 40 pounds or more.  It's fitted with wheels and a pull out handle, so she can drag it up the stairs.  It sounds out each step.

She wheels it through the living room and comes in to get a snack, setting it down finally by the kitchen table, dropping her shoulders and sighing.  She's like a 50 inch tall Willie Loman, in the opening scene of "Death of a Salesman".

The mornings are not much different. Either Jane or I drive Ellen to school because we live close.  Here's a typical morning:

Ellen: Can you get this into the truck?

Me: OK, hold onů.Why is this so heavy?

Ellen: I don't know. It just is.

Me: Do you need all this stuff?

Ellen: Yes. Of course.

Me: Why do you need the binder and the text for science?

Ellen: (exasperated, as if talking to a younger child): My notes are in the binder, but I study from the text.

Me: (getting desperate): Isn't there just a workbook or something?

Ellen: That's in there too.

Me: I don't get it.

Ellen: Can you get this into the truck for me?

We talked about this the other evening when Jane and I wanted to go to her school and investigate the heavy book bag syndrome.  Ellen does not like us to talk to her teachers.

"That's just the way things are.  Books are heavy.  You want me to do my homework, right?"

"Well, it just doesn't make sense.  I went to a perfectly good school and I didn't have 40 pounds of books to lug around."

Jane and Ellen exchange glances.  They know what's coming next, and I know they know, and I hate that I am so predictable, but I can't keep it in.  It's like a sickness, the urge to tell stories of one's childhood.

"When I was ten I had a Free Spirit bike.  I wanted a Schwinn with a banana seat, but my parents got the Free Spirit.  And, I rode it to school every day it didn't rain -- 3 miles.  I loved riding to school.  Some days I didn't have any books at all.  I just rode along, enjoying the fresh air."

Ellen shakes her head.  "But that was different.  Back then the whole world was different."

"Not that different."

"You only had three TV channels.  They hadn't even invented Old Navy."  She gestures emphatically when she talks about the past.  To her, Jane and I grew up in depression era conditions, with no remote controls or cell phones.

"I need to have a big book bag.  I'm going to small liberal arts college and then I'm moving to New York."  Her eyes narrow and she taps her PDA for emphasis.  "I'm going to be successful."

No argument exists to counter this.  But I wonder about the real causes.

I have done the research and it's pretty consistent.  Lots of homework does not guarantee lots of learning for kids in grades 1-5.  Homework is somewhat more important to the success of middle school students, but it's not until high school that the research says, unequivocally, that kids who do more homework learn more and go further.

So what's the rationale?  I don't think it's homework.  I think it's part of the new middle class, suburban parenting ethic, in which perfectly sane people decide to cancel their own lives and establish their children as little earths, around which they rotate, like so many Ptolemaic universes.

The heavy book bag becomes the perfect control tool, a symptom and cause of over-parenting.  It enforces dependency, like unfunded mandates or a Republican's idea of welfare.  No more bike rides home from school or carefree afternoons with all your work done at school.

At independent schools, like the one our daughter attends, the car pool line is filled with parents who heave their kids' gear into the backs of their SUV's (Big bags=big cars. Makes sense, right?).  Some of them carry the books to class.  The book bag is not just a symbol of the new, tied down child, it's the apparatus that ties the child down.

Weight demands structure and in the new, ambitious suburbs, where we buy our kids PDA's and drive forty miles to club sports team practices, structure is all.  Heaviness is a kind of virtue, perhaps tied into our Puritanical ethos.  The hand of God.  The hand of homework.  The heavy hand of success.

Last weekend Jane and Ellen and I went to the Smoky Mountain National Park over Labor Day.  Ellen had a lot of homework and wanted to bring her massive book bag along.  We compromised, taking a couple of sheets of math work and social studies workbook. "You can do the rest when we get home," we told her.  She pretended to not like it, but once we got up in the mountains, out on the trails, or in the hotel swimming pool at night, she relaxed a little and forgot about school.

On our final night, she raced over to where Jane and I were sitting by the pool.  She had met some kids from Ohio.  "These kids say there's some kind of weird bug over behind their room.  Can I go see it?"

We told her yes and she sprinted off with the Ohioans, through the dusk of the last weekend of summer, water flicking off her ponytail, sans book bag and absolutely light.

©2004 Jim Brown.
Jim Brown holds an MA in English from the University of Tennessee.  He lives with his wife Jane and daughter Ellen in Summerville, SC, where he teaches English.

The IP comments: The IP agrees completely with Jim's comments.  The only value of the heavy bookbag for the younger child is that it compensates for the lack of physical education classes.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.