One of my favorite writing tasks to assign to students naturally arises during the course of reading “The Things They Carried,” a moving novel about the experiences of being drafted to, serving in, and returning home from Vietnam. Students are asked to mirror author Tim O’Brien’s writing style in the chapter that carries the book’s name, but they are asked to change the subject matter to “The Things Students Carry.”
It’s a powerful writing prompt. Every time I assign it, it opens a window into my students’ homes and school lives that I don’t normally get to look through. The assignment invites them to write about many different kinds of students they attend school with and to try to encapsulate the experiences of teen students today in a short piece of prose. The topic inspires me as well, especially as I consider how teen life has changed since I was experiencing it. Trying the assignment myself gives me room to reflect on the variety of student experiences I see daily in the classroom. I encourage every teacher to try it– I promise it will help you become a more humane educator. Here’s my most recent attempt to reflect some of the kids I see every day–it’s a snapshot, and it doesn’t even capture the variety human experiences that are in my room:
A lot of what they carried was necessity. Cashmere carried a hearing device that weighed 3 ounces, but with it came two adult sign language intepreters that followed her through her day. Those with AVID classes carried their large AVID notebook, loaded with organized sections for each class they had, and ready to be checked by their AVID teacher at any time. They carried binders, paper, pens, pencils, rulers, calculators, and spiral notebooks, ready for any class at any time. Sometimes, they would carry a poster board rolled up for a project or a textbook required for the class that day. They packed their backpacks with handouts, packets, and project descriptions, and many were not organized enough to have these things filed in notebooks or folders. The papers were informally “filed” in the backpack, the bottoms crushing under other items and curling, ripping, or tearing by the use. They carried it all in back packs as their school had no lockers for storage. Some included a lunch or snacks to eat in their bags, while others depended on the free lunch at the cafeteria or brought money to pay their friends to purchase food off campus when given the opportunity. These items varied in weight from 5 to 20 pounds, depending on textbooks required for classes.
The things they carried varied by their interests. Maurice carried a baseball bat to class every morning and leaned it against the wall, where he also dropped his athletic bag, full with his practice uniform, cleats, hat, and mitt, all weighing a total of 15 pounds. Depending on the time of year, Heather would carry an extra bag of either soccer or basketball gear. Daniel carried an art notebook with pages full of superhero images skillfully drawn out, some colored and others not. Miranda carried a bag full of Smarties, which she would take out when her energy started flagging, cheerfully handing them out to her classmates. Noah carried his laptop, a rare prize in this Title I school, because he preferred it to the school provided technology options. It was a lightweight instrument, but carried the weight of responsibility and awareness to ensure it didn’t get stolen or broken. Jack carried graphic novels, which he would read as he walked from class to class, and sometimes during class instead of doing his assignments. Amy carried her trumpet, hauling it with her to class so that when the bell rang at the end of the day, she could run with it directly to catch the bus which was always trying to leave before she could arrive at the pick up spot. They all carried smart phones that weighed less than one pound with accompanying headphones, at the ready to plug their ears and check out of the class environment and into the musical environment of their choice.
They also carried the intangibles; the immeasurable. Rose carried the weight of repeated bouts of depression, which included the weight of having to move in with a grandfather because her mother couldn’t handle her dark moods anymore. Many of them carried the scars of lives outside of the classroom. Some hid the scars behind smiles while others acted out with short tempers. And then there was the sleeper, who simply laid down his head on the desk trying to recover from a night of trying to find a place to sleep. Carlos carried the weight of a clipping from the local newspaper which bore the obituary next to the picture of his cousin who committed suicide. They suffered homelessness, hunger, and uncertainty about their future as they sat in classes listening to teachers talk about college, dorm life, and ACT exams. Melena carried pain–the pain of an injury incurred during athletics–and the nervous awareness that surgery was shortly ahead. Whitney silently carried the weight of knowing that tonight she would sleep again in the car with her father after completing her homework. Emily carried the burden of a morning phone call from her father who had told her that he was ashamed of her and that she was no daughter of his. These things weighed them down more heavily than anything else, but these were also the burdens they didn’t want to share. They hid the weight because of shame and embarrassment. Sometimes the weight became overwhelming, and a simple “Good morning! How was your weekend?” from a teacher would cause the weight to become too much to bear. The tears would well up behind the forced smile, and a proud teen would finally confide a small portion of reality to the teacher, who might or might not understand the gravity of that small sign in the midst of preparing for a class of 30 students now walking in the door.
They carried hope. Hope for a brighter day and a better future. They showered, brushed, polished, and carefully selected today’s outfit before arriving at school hoping for social acceptance from their peers. Even those who were failing classes carried a smile at passing period. They told their Advisory teachers of their dreams to become doctors, actors, engineers, athletes, and musicians. They carried PSAT scores that showed marked deficiencies, but continued to dream of Harvard, Yale, and MIT. They confronted low averages in classes with fresh optimism that everything would just work out. Some quietly carried the doubt that they could handle college after all and the resolution that the military wasn’t going to be their thing. These students carried the weight of an uncertain future, along with the hope that they’d find their way.
They carried the weight of expectation. Some knew their parents expected them to graduate in the top 10. Others knew their parents expected them to help take care of little brothers and sisters. They all knew their teachers expected them to try their best, and most understood that their teachers’ reputations rested on their achievements. Their teachers expected them to find time to complete homework on time while they balanced after school jobs and practices.
A few knew that they were expected to fail and to drop out. They knew what their city expected of their school and its graduates, and they had heard the students at other schools reference them as “ghetto.” They felt they had to live up or down to the grade assigned to the school by the education department.
Above all, they carried the weight of the expectations of their peers–a powerful force in the world of the teenager. These expectations varied by the group of peers they joined: some groups expected high academic achievement and involvement in school clubs, while other groups expected missed classes to walk to the apartment across the street to share a joint while swapping phones to watch YouTube videos. At times, the weight of expectation became too much to bear, and they succumbed to the lowest of the expectations: missing school, failing classes, dropping out.
For 180 days a year, they carried these weights with them through 6.5 hours of school, often sinking and dropping their heads onto their desks before the day was out from the sheer exhaustion of carrying the weight. And when the school day was over, many slowly exited the building, hovering around the front of school rather than going home to take on more burdens of family responsibility and social pressure. And they all dreamed of a day when the weight would be lighter, when the future would be brighter, and when they’d be in charge of their own lives.