Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Weighty matters

So now that our new president is targeting education, and working to raise standards, and assure every child a right to excel on standardized tests designed for middle-class white kids without learning disabilities, perhaps he can also tackle one of the greatest education-related health hazards facing our great nation today. I'm talking, of course, about the Backpack Problem.

Simply put, all those high standards are causing kids to have to drag home enough books to start a small library. And rather than toting those books in the crook of their tired arms, as generations of students have done before them, they are toting those books in backpacks, some of which weigh as much as a small horse. They are putting these weights on their slender shoulders and turning their tender little spines into question marks. Or they are pulling these weights behind them in stewardess-size suitcases that must surely be putting undue strain on their arms, and really just look ridiculous.

Doctors are starting to worry. A recent study of Massachusetts fifth- through eigth-graders found that on average they carried packs whose mass exceeded 15 percent of their body weight. A third of the students complaned of back pain. It is unknown if they were being asked to, say, take out the trash at the time the pain was reported.

It would help if students wore backpacks that offered good support instead of trendy ones that hang down below their bottoms. It would help if they would wear them squarely over their shoulders with a belt buckled around their waist, instead of slumped over one shoulder. And it would help if teachers would just knock it off with the homework already. But it's more likely that schools will start giving kids sets of textbooks to keep at home so that the need for toting is minimized. This will happen when, like, money starts dropping from trees.

As it happens, though, our little household has indeed had a set of my daughter's textbooks since the beginning of the year. She is classified as special-ed, and was supposed to have an instructional aide helping her in her mainstream class; when we waived that, and decided to let her go it alone, just sending us a lousy set of books must have seemed like a budget bonanza over paying an additional teacher's salary. Perhaps I should have asked them to send us some furniture to go with it.

So my girl has not had to carry more than folders and lunch and the occasional paperback workbook in her big ol' backpack. It's been positively featherweight. No back problems here! And so, of course, she's been unhappy. This is a child who loves to fit in and be like everybody else. If everybody else is eating Lunchables, she wants Lunchables. If everybody else is buying Britney Spears paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Club, she wants a Britney Spears paperback, even though when it comes to actually reading the thing she is not as able as everybody else. And if everybody else is stooped over from the weight of a textbook-stuffed backpack, well, she wants to be stooped over too. Moooom, why won't you let me?

The straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, was when another student noticed she wasn't putting the assigned books in her bag and accused her of not listening to the teacher. Now, she is a child of many weaknesses, but one of her strengths is listening to the teacher. She is probably the most organized child in that class. She knows when to take her book out, what book, what pencil, what assignment. She may not always understand the content, but she's got the form down cold. She's the one who tells kids who've been out of the classroom for some reason what they ought to be doing now. So the suggestion that she isn't taking books home because she isn't paying attention is insupportable--and the idea of telling everybody she has the books at home alread because she needs help is embarrassing.

So, she's now a member of the too-darn-heavy brigade. She is so excited to be weighted down. Surprises, a little, by how heavy it is, but proud to be one of the bent and crooked. Mr. Bush, could you start working on this problem now, please? Or set aside a lot more Medicare money for back surgery in the year 2050.

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