It Ain't Heavy, It's My Backpack

April 25, 1993|By LISA WISEMAN

From adolescence to adulthood I have owned the same backpack.

Together, we've survived 10 years.

Several schools.

A high school crush.

One 25-pound bag of plaster of Paris.

The Atlantic City bus terminal.

I know that a professional should not carry the same book bag she has owned since age 14, but I can't seem to part with my old bag.

I remember the September day I bought it. It hung on a wall lined with knapsacks of all sizes, shapes and colors. Pick out the wrong bag, I thought, and you'll feel like the kid in first grade who had the stupid-looking Brady Bunch lunch box. I decided to play it safe and get an ordinary, navy-blue Eastpak. (When you're 14, you want to be like everyone else.)

The first day of school, I packed my pens and notebooks very carefully into my new bag -- a practice I long ago abandoned. (If I looked in my bag right now, I bet I could scrounge up enough change for a soda, and find a fuzzy cough drop, some paper clips and three or four hair bands and barrettes.)

Like most in my generation, I never used both backpack straps at the same time. Since the eighth grade, we have carried a knapsack the only cool way a student could -- slung over one shoulder. But unlike my peers, I resisted the urge to write on it. I'm glad I had the foresight to see that scribbles of "Wham #1," "Simon Le Bon is a babe!" and "I love Danny Laxton" would date me. Especially since Wham doesn't exist anymore. I saw a Simon Le Bon video recently, and he's looking kind of old; and I hear that Danny is either in the military, married or working at a gas station now.

My backpack is starting to fall apart, and that's not good. Inside, the nylon lining is ripped. That happened in 12th grade when I tried to shove into the backpack a heavy bag of plaster of Paris, which I needed for a school project. My backpack was so heavy that when a friend gave me a hug before homeroom, I tipped over and fell flat on my back. I was trapped like a turtle sprawled on its shell.

On the back of the bag is a strange, potato-shaped stain. During my sophomore year in college, a jar of rubber cement spilled inside my bag. I had history on my math homework. Math homework on my history.

Part of me says that the shabby-looking knapsack should be thrown out. It has taken a lot of abuse. It has been crammed into lockers, tossed into dirty car trunks, covered in mud and hurled ++ out a third-floor window. (A friend waited below to catch it. It seemed like a fun thing to do at the time.)

Through it all, my knapsack has been steady, durable and reliable. Why should I get rid of it?

My bag and I go all the way back to the days when I chose library books by Judy Blume and Lois Duncun, tales of teen love and teen angst -- "my parents don't understand me" books.

That bag was my first piece of luggage. I took it to slumber parties and to Camp Wo-Me-To in Harford County. That summer, I slept with my backpack at the foot of my bunk bed. At night, I would unzip the bag quietly, get out a pen and some paper and write notes home.

"Went swimming today. Lifeguard tried to teach me how to swim without holding my nose. Swallowed pool water, and threw up on the lifeguard."

After middle school and camp, the bag was still in decent shape, so I hauled it off to high school. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Ophelia, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer all shared the dark corners of my backpack. Math books thick with heavy algebraic formulas and dense quadratic equations replaced library books that were read for fun. To think I was in such a rush to start high school. Now I wondered if it ever would end.

At college, the campus store had nice new backpacks with thuniversity's name embroidered on it. They were slick, but I was not tempted. I was comfortable with my old bag. It took four years of high school to get it to mold to my back just right.

College required fewer books to carry, but more junk. At thbeginning of the day, the knapsack sat on the bed unzipped. I'd load it up for the 18-hour itinerary ahead:

In the large compartment, rear section: books, notebooks for three or four classes. In the center section: camera and film for photography lab. In the front section: Burger King uniform and work shoes. Shoved in front of those: pocketbook and a lunch consisting of one smashed ham-and-cheese sandwich, a bruised apple, and a bag of crumbs that once were potato chips. And in the small front compartment: computer disks for computer courses, and every student's friend, a Walkman.

College also brought summer vacations, and the first time I traveled a long distance alone. One summer, I was trying to get home to Maryland after visiting a college friend, and I missed my bus in New Jersey. The second bus was full. The third was late. It got dark. I was alone in the downtown Atlantic City bus terminal -- far from the glitz of the casinos. I rested my head on my knapsack, wrapped my arms tightly around it, and somehow eased my mind enough to go to sleep.

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