This column first ran in 2011:
One of the perks of going back to school for many Forest Park students is getting a new backpack. Having grown up in the pre-backpack era, I feel a little deprived. To think of how much mayhem I could have caused on the playground if I had had both 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. But if you were really cool, you didn’t balance your books on your hip. Cool guys, like me, walked with one hand gripping the books from on top. It was like palming a basketball, which none of us could do.
Long after my book-carrying days were over, backpacks became popular. Backpacks make it impossible to sneak up behind a classmate and knock their books out from behind, one of our favorite sports. Something else, though, is lost with backpacks. Boys can 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 fifth grade. The best a guy could do today would be to offer to carry her backpack. That would sound ridiculous to a modern female student who has never required assistance with her books.
The backpack was first invented in 1938 by Gerry Cunningham, aka Gerry Outdoors. They featured two zippered compartments and were mostly used for hiking, camping and mountain climbing.
They were not yet worn by students, who were wrapping straps around their books to carry them. If they were really dorky, students lugged their books in square leather bags that snapped shut with a buckle. At my high school, these were known as “Bennie bags.” Freshmen were called Bennies and they were ridiculed for carrying them, along with everything else they did.
The modern lightweight backpack was invented in 1967. By the ’90s, backpacks had become ubiquitous. They weren’t strictly for school anymore. They were worn by working professionals, travelers, and even backpackers.
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.
Besides growing dangerous strains of bacteria, backpacks pose other health risks. 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 geeky. But they might consider those suitcases with the long handles and tiny wheels. These would definitely prepare them for today’s workplace.
Modern backpacks aren’t just for books anymore. They are designed to carry digital devices like laptops and smart phones. They are also decorated with the student’s favorite TV and movie characters. Backpacks have become part of the student’s identity.
Shiny, colorful backpacks sound fun but 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 no intention of ever opening them.
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. Jrice1038@aol.com