Is Your Child's Backpack Heavy Enough?

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Every day they stagger beneath burdens too great to bear. Issuing forth from their place of toil, sweat pouring from their brows, their faces contorted in agony, they sway under the weight they are forced to carry. I’ve seen them fall, unable to walk upright without assistance.

Who are these wretched souls? Exhausted coal miners you ask? No… minors!

And you thought the Child Labor Laws were in effect.

Those are your children exiting the halls of… uh… "Learning." Each and every one is lugging a backpack stuffed to the gills with binders, folders, textbooks, calculators and laptop computers. It must be 3:00 PM and that means it is time for your little darlings to be released from school to go play.

In a pig’s eye! Why? Because, dutiful parent, it is time for them to be locked into their rooms for two to four hours of tedious homework. (Much of which you will end up having to do, especially if it’s a… and I shudder at the thought… project.)

Time For Kids magazine reported: "In 1981, 9-year-olds to 11-year-olds spent an average of 2 hours and 49 minutes on homework each week. By 1997, kids that age were doing more than 3 1/2 hours of homework a week. Kids 6 to 8 years old had an even bigger increase, from 44 minutes a week to more than two hours!" That’s all?! The lucky little blighters! Now it’s easily more than two hours… a day!

"Grade-school kids have never had this much homework in the history of the US," writes Teresa Gallagher. "In 1900 the Commissioner of Education testified before Congress against any homework for children under age 12. Then, for 20 years, The Ladies’ Home Journal instigated a crusade against homework. Teachers were opposed to homework and the New York Times editorialized against it. In 1930 the American Child Health Association classified homework as a form of child labor. Some cities banned it. Sacramento prohibited grade-school homework up until 1961."

Despite the shocking lack of after hours brain crunching they still learned to read, write and do math (without calculators)… better than today’s future "Deciders."

Betcha didn’t know that did ya?

But the times they are a changin’. One would think these weary young souls were in training to be the "suits" which serve Halliburton or the Department of Justice (sic). However, as we all know, employees of Cheney Co. and DOJ may get paid large salaries to lug heavy briefcases… possibly weighted down with pints of Schnapps… but they don’t work half as hard as do our elementary school-age children.

It’s three in the afternoon. As I wait in a line of snorting Porsche Cayennes and glistening Lexuses outside Dotheboys Hall, I choke back tears at the sight of this scene of blighted childhood. A pale, forlorn figure trundles out already carrying the weight of the world. It’s my twelve-year-old son who greets me with a whimper and asks me to help load his backpack into the rear cargo compartment of the Dive Master Special. Phew! I won’t have to go to the fitness center now… just the chiropractor. Hmmm… remind me to increase the tire pressure and get a good 4WD lifter kit for the suspension.

We are both eager for the after-school time together to discuss the day’s adventures, to play games, and to bond… over hours of useless homework. During the cheerful ride home, The Boy sits in a stupor brought on by Post Traumatic School Disorder™.

Once at home I haven’t the heart to force my son to heave his backpack across the twenty yards of lawn to the house. And I am not about to instigate another bout of sciatica or incur one more herniated disk. Fortunately, we have The Hounds, Nimrod and Little Brain. So on go the harnesses. Mush you Huskies! To drag this heavy load is why we keep you alive.

True, most kid’s backpacks these days have wheels. They sure as hell had better! I carry less refuse in my trans-oceanic steamer trunk.

In the sunny, modern kitchen awaits four children’s grape-flavored Tylenol tablets. Sure hope Mom left out the Xanax for me! Cookies and milk? Strike that! First we have to dull the existing pain before we inflict more pain! But don’t worry. It’s not torture just like waterboarding isn’t torture either. In a world dominated by the war on terror, there’s no time for frivolity and Fig Newtons! Best to toughen up our spawn with some daily terror in and out of school. Remember, terror never sleeps… and neither do our kids… or us. After all, we have to compete: in other parts of the world, report the Times, children "as young as 15 are being recruited by terrorist groups." Wonder what those kids have to read for homework every night, If I Did It by O.J. Simpson?

Besides, rousing speeches at PTA meetings have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the more your kid busts his ass after school, or the longer the school procession in the annual Chicken Festival Parade, the higher grades he will score on those dumbed-down tests that grade gluttonous parents demanded in response to No Child Left Behind!

As my son swallows his painkillers… and I swallow my Happy Pills… I review the homework assignment sheet. My son has been assigned the task of carving a three-quarter-scale replica of Mount Rushmore… due tomorrow. Better call the Real Estate Agent pronto to buy the adjacent swamp.

So, what is crammed into our children’s backpacks? Are all these binders, textbooks, workbooks and mystery assignments really necessary? I don’t recall owning this many bulk paper products during my entire twelve years of University studies… combined!

I rummage around The Boy’s backpack to get out the School Guidebook to read the official policy on mass. We know that in Newtonian Mechanics, mass is conserved; in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, mass is convertible with energy. If we hold with Newton, we keep the backpack as is; if we agree with Einstein, we burn the dratted thing. See? A science project!

One suspects it is a school requirement that all children must carry with them a minimum backpack weight equal to half their body weight… if they understand the basic math to calculate that mind-boggling figure. Parents are encouraged to toss in a few lead scuba-diving weights to make up the difference.

Sadly, there seems to be no mention in the Squeers’ School Guidebook of the required backpack bulk, but then I gave up looking halfway through on page 687. Drat and Bracafrats! Why did this Guidebook have to be in his backpack too? Shouldn’t he have it memorized by now? If he hasn’t memorized it by Thanksgiving, out into the playground he goes to pick up rocks.

So what the hell is in here? Ok, the usual detritus of a 12-year-old boy: Proceedings of the United States Senate in the Impeachment Trial of President William Jefferson Clinton, February 12, 1999, Sharon Osborne Extreme: The Official Autobiography (rumored to have been ghosted by Laura Bush), and Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman?!! Okay… so one item is educational.

Hey! What’s this… a novel? You mean… they are teaching my son to… read? This has to be a scam. Aha! It is! The book is The Bridge to Terabithia. Nothing wrong with that but hell’s bells, any kid with an IQ higher than that of his school counselor (that means most kids), is just going to get his parents to rent the DVD and cheat! You see… In America, anybody can become president.

No, no, no. The Bridge to Terabithia is… and I shudder at the thought…serious literature! Out damned spot! We’ll get the DVD.

I put the backpack on the bathroom scales. Aye Carumba! We’re under weight! "Son… you’re in sixth grade now. At 45 lbs, your backpack is too light." Time to beef up with the hardback copies of Atlas Shrugged, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and a few more dive weights.

So, pound for pound how much education do our children get from carrying the equivalent of twenty gallons of water from the valley floor to the summit of Machu Picchu? Will this stunt their growth? How about their future issues with herniated disks and sciatica? Oh… silly me. I’m such a Mr. Minus. Maybe they’ll all just be bent over like a 97-year-old washerwoman… when they are… seventeen. No problem there! It should exempt them from military sacrifice… er… I mean "service."

I just hope someday they can read the instructions to their calculators… despite their schooling.

Elizabeth Gyllensvard contributed to and edited this story.

Tom Chartier [send him mail] played lead guitar in legendary Los Angeles punk band The Rotters for 26 years until their final appearance in January of 2004. He has lived in Tokyo and Los Angeles. Currently he resides somewhere in the Caribbean.

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