One of the perks of going back to school for many Forest Park students is getting a new backpack. Having grown up in a pre-backpack era, I feel a little deprived. To think of how much more trouble I could have caused on the playground with my hands free.

During my student days, there were two accepted methods for carrying books: the girls’ way and the boys’ way. Girls hugged the books against their chests. This wasn’t just the height of modesty but, like the curved crossbar on girls’ bikes, safe and practical. Plus, it was almost impossible to punch the books out of a girl’s clutches, though we tried.

Boys, of course, were not interested in safe and practical. They balanced the books on their hip with one arm. To keep them balanced on the bone, they leaned to one side.

But, if you were really cool, you didn’t use the hip. Cool boys, like me, walked with one hand gripping the books from on top. The degree of difficulty was like palming a basketball, which none of us could do. We substituted a “cool” slouch for that geeky lean. 

Long after my book-carrying days were over, backpacks became popular. They made it impossible to sneak up behind a classmate and knock their books out from behind, one of our favorite sports. Something else, though, was lost with backpacks. Boys could no longer offer to carry a girl’s books home from school.

I know this sounds sexist and corny but it was the only pick-up line we had in 5th Grade. The best a guy can do today is to offer to carry her backpack. This would sound ridiculous to a modern female student who has never required assistance with her books.

By the ’90’s, backpacks were ubiquitous. They weren’t strictly for school anymore. Kids wore them for Rollerblading and to less formal dances. Being children, the inside of their backpacks began to resemble their rooms: messy, with half-eaten sandwiches sharing space with urgent notes from the principal.

Backpacks, though, posed other health risks, besides growing new strains of bacteria. Doctors have determined they cause, you’ll never guess, back problems. They recommend students wear saddlebags with pouches in front and back.  Kids aren’t going to wear something that dorky. But they might consider those suitcases with the long handles and tiny wheels. This would definitely prepare them for the adult workplace.

Now that we know the health risks posed by backpacks, perhaps we’ll see a return to the days of children clutching books in their chilled fingers. Boys will again offer to carry the load for the girl they really like. And really cool guys will palm a history, science and math book at the same time, with little intention of ever opening them.

This column was originally published in 1999; it has been slightly reworked

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.