I caught him. I felt like some character from a mediocre cop show. I had sleuthed it out. But, that feeling stayed with me for an instant. Less than an instant, if that’s possible. The feeling that immediately took its place and stayed with me for quite some time was burden. Knowing something you didn’t want to know. And at the same time understanding that you sort of knew it all along anyway. There is sometimes a great chasm between what you think and what you know. But when the two collide, that can make for an unnerving experience.
It started by chance. First period. I simply picked up his backpack to move it a little to the left, creating a more maneuverable path through the room. Right away, I could tell the backpack was empty. I had purchased enough backpacks over the years for my girls to remember the feel of an empty one. An overpriced bag of air, really. Over time, it becomes the life force of a child’s school year. Homework. Books. Communications. Announcements. The girls got older and the backpacks became intricate style statements that had to be fashionable, but not so much as to overpower the outfits they had chosen. This was explained to me on more than one occasion, but years later it still doesn’t quite make sense to the mind of a middle-aged man. I just accepted the explanations and made a few budget concessions.
So, this first-period backpack? Empty. It almost flew out of my hand as I leaned down with a deadlift mentality to heave what is often a very heavy object off the floor. And this one was still just an over-priced bag of air. No books. No homework. No fashion statements. Just air. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t ask.
A messy backpack with crumpled papers and announcements from a previous school year can be a sign of laziness. A lack of care or respect. That intrinsic value not yet discovered. A quirky badge of honor for the adolescent male putting a lot of care into proving that he doesn’t care. But an empty backpack? Totally barren? That’s not a statement. That’s a secret. And there is a balancing act that goes with allowing a child to keep the dignity they have assigned to their secret while still helping them out.
I immediately and foolishly make middle-class assumptions about an empty backpack. School supplies, right? Okay. This wouldn’t be so difficult. School supplies are easy to pull together. Giving them to him without trading them for his secret would be a little more complicated, but still very doable. In my head, I got very James Bond about it all. The backpack was a common style. I could easily buy the same backpack, fill it with supplies, and somehow make the switch without being found out. I had seen it in the movies. He might be okay with me holding his secret. I’ve held a lot of secrets this way over the years. Most are still with me. And I will take them all with me when I retire. Never to be spoken. I’ll keep your secret. You keep your dignity. We’re all good.
A few days later though, I see him after school walking home and his backpack is definitely not empty. It clearly has a little weight to it now. I’m immediately relieved. It’s a campus full of decent folks. Someone must have beat me to it. No matter. Another need will come along soon enough.
But the next day, there it is. That obviously empty backpack. His final class of the day is just a few doors down from me. Sure enough, I see that he’s leaving with a full load. The next morning. Empty again. Its emptiness is not as noticeable as before. The bag has held items and has a broken-in sort of look to it. If you don’t pick it up, you might not catch it. But I do. The pattern goes on for about a week.
And then? Then I know. No evidence. I just really know. I wander out to the quad at lunch. There he is. Right where I thought he might be. The busier lunch tables. He’s good. It’s a skill he has perfected. He goes unseen, undetected, as he casually grabs food off the tables and drops it into his open, empty backpack. He goes for fruit, mostly. Uneaten fruit gets left behind quite a bit. Occasionally, he finds the unopened granola bar or a yogurt. He doesn’t need a highlighter or a ruler. The boy needs a meal. The backpack comes to school empty, so he can fill it with food he finds on the tables.
No doubt it is not the only empty backpack at my school. Not the only empty belly either. Go ahead. Open one up. Pick one. Any one. At first, they seem pretty light-weight. Very little in the way of school supplies. But, look closer. In those empty spaces, you start to see anxiety. Instability. Eviction. Possible abuse. Addiction. The more you look, the more you realize just how full that backpack is when they first walk into the room. Seems really difficult to find a place to cram your lesson on fractions or how to write a clear thesis. And as long as that backpack stays full, your lesson is never going to make it inside. You may not ever have to witness that sort of poverty from the perspective of a child trying to learn, but I see it. I recognize it every time I open one of these backpacks full of burden.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent bestseller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.