The weight of the world

I was thumbing through some press releases the other day - we reporters love those pre-written packets of semi-useful information - and I came across one that alarmed me.

Not for my sake, really, but for the children.

This fax stressed the stress on our young students' backs; no, not the pile of homework or looming test dates, but the actual, physical weight on their backs, with bags stuffed full of thick math books and reading material, calculators and notebooks.

This slip of paper from the American Occupational Therapy Association, a sheet of paper that is 1/1,800 the weight of an average 18-pound backpack (according to Consumer Reports), tells me that 5,000 students each year go to the emergency room because of injuries related to overweighted backpacks. Other studies show 60 percent of school-aged children report chronic back pain related to heavy backpacks.

This is not good news.

But this got me thinking about something unrelated but equally as important. OK, not really important, but quirky nonetheless. When did the backpack shoulder-switch happen?

Let me explain. When I was growing up, there were plenty of unwritten rules at school.

A few:

• Don't talk to upperclassmen unless they have spoken to you.

• Don't tell the teacher he forgot to assign the homework/give the pop quiz/zip his fly.

• Run in the halls when you can get away with it.

• Don't eat the rectangle pizza ... unless you're starving.

• And (this is serious) never sling your backpack over both shoulders. It just isn't cool. TV icon Mike Seaver wouldn't do it, so why should you?

If I would have known the statistics of emergency room injuries, or this advice from the American Occupational Therapy Association - "Never sling the backpack over one shoulder - this causes the child to lean to one side, with potential pain or discomfort from too much weight - always wear both shoulder straps to keep the pack so it is close and snug on the child's back" - maybe I would have changed my mind and been waaaaay ahead of the cool curve. Probably not. I walk around Sequim campuses and, guess what? Backpacks are on two shoulders, almost without exception.

I asked my high schooler about this after a regular school day. She came in, dumped the massive book bag on the ground and started searching for snacks.

What's up with backpacks? I asked. We used to carry them on one shoulder, I said. Maybe back in "my day," backpacks were lighter. I don't know. But everyone goes with the double. What gives?

She looked at me as if I were mental.

It's too heavy on one shoulder, she deadpanned.

I hate to admit it but kids these days ... are smart.

This whole thing got me thinking about something else that's disappeared since I miraculously graduated from high school: What ever happened to cursive? I see some students using it but the one thing my mom told me as I dragged my feet toward my high school days was this: "Learn to write all your papers in pen and in cursive. Teachers won't accept anything else."

I guess it's obvious; computers killed the need for cursive and, in many cases, good handwriting. Let's hope all the next generation needs is good typing fingers.

But where is the technology that is going to help keep our youths from looking like that "Evolution of Man" poster? What's the next step here? Do we just put a book's worth of computer chip info into their heads and save them the effort? Or do we get them back in the gym and get them doing clean-and-jerks until a backpack feels like little more than an iPod shuffle?

Frankly, students don't need any more things weighing them down in this world and the advancement of technology - laptops, mobile devices, online homework, etc. - is likely the real answer. It's already happening in Sequim's computer and business classes: more emphasis on the use of computer-based assignments, more homework via the online route, maybe even electronic books instead of the stone tablets they carry around now.

Maybe it will all work out. Maybe our advancements in technology can save their frail, little spinal cords.

I guess progress is a good thing. Unless, of course, technology turns on us ... and we're all turned into slaves to do the robots' bidding. My guess is they'll make us write cursive.

Michael Dashiell is a Sequim Gazette reporter. He can be reached at 683-3311 ext. 113 or via e-mail at

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