Wednesday, February 16, 2000

The wheel deal

The latest hip, hot, happening, gotta-have-it accessory at my children's elementary school doesn't involve clothing, shoes, or tattoos. It's not pierced ears or pierced anything else, thankfully. It has nothing to do with Pokémon, the Backstreet Boys, or Leonardo DiCaprio. It's a backpack on wheels. And I don't get it.

I watch the kids filing into school, and they look like a bunch of stewardess-wannabes, pulling their little suitcases behind them. When I first saw a couple of kids wheeling their stuff early in the school year, I assumed they had physical handicaps that prevented them from toting their gear more conventionally; or perhaps they were leaving for a trip right after school. But now I'd say at least a third of the schoolkids are doing wheelies, and since I haven't heard of an epidemic of broken collar bones, I've got to assume it's just fashion. And since my daughter's lobbying hard for one, I have to deal with it.

Maybe I could see it if these were high-school kids, with big thick textbooks to haul around, but in first or second grade? What can they possibly have that's too heavy to carry? Are we raising a generation of children who are too weak to raise a notebook, a folder, and a couple of puny readers on their fragile shoulders? It's not like they're doing book reports on War and Peace.

Frankly, I'm still not used to first and second graders carrying backpacks at all, much less overnight bags. In my day--and hear I am probably dating myself back to the Stone Age, and you will be shocked that my elderly fingers can still pound the keys--we actually carried our books in the crook of our arms. Yes! It's true! I don't believe I used a backpack until college, and then only because I rode my bike everywhere. (Hey, remember when bikes had baskets to hold your books? So quaint.)

How well I remember, with my few remaining brain cells. You'd walk along with your notebook and textbooks piled high in your arms, purse over one shoulder, lunch sack clutched in your hand. Maybe a cute boy would come along and offer to help. Maybe you'd drop some books, and a cute boy would pick them up. Or maybe your papers would blow away and somebody would step on your homework and the cute boy would steal your lunch. It was a crap shoot, but at least there was a chance for interaction. What are the cute boys to do now--offer to wheel your luggage? Can a cute boy wheeling two hefty bags behind him walk close enough to you to brush against your arm and give you weeks worth of diary material? Can he even walk close enough to have a conversation? A major mating ritual of childhood seems endangered here.

What will these kids use when they get older and the books get bigger? Baggage carts? Wheelbarrows? Personal valets? Truth be told, in this electronic age, it will probably go the other way--toward e-books and Palm Pilots. They'll keep all their schoolwork in their pocket, and wonder at the old days when they actually had to carry stuff. Instant messages will take the place of passed notes. Somebody will come up with a way to send electronic spitwads. Cliff Notes software will automatically highlight the passages you need for the test.

Ah, it's a brave new world. And our kids are rolling into it, on two wheels.

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