Who knew that a backpack, well-constructed and sturdily priced, wouldn't be good for years and years of service? At back-to-school-shopping time, I expect that my son will have outgrown his jeans, need new sneakers and, OMG, does anyone recycle gym clothes that have been stored in close proximity to a banana, the same banana, for several months? Come August, I'm poised to buy the same old pencils, pens, paper and folders. But backpack shopping -- that is an evolving science.
I have come to understand that as with toys and bikes, backpacks have transitional years as children grow and tastes mature. You start small, bright and light for preschool and early elementary. A character is often involved in closing the deal: Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora the Explorer, maybe a car or robot from Pixar. Around fourth grade, self-awareness and individuality ratchets things up a notch, and some peer pressure may influence the purchase. Middle school is a minefield of choices involving attitude, colors and the cool-fierce-fresh factor. This year, my son and I head into the all-bets-are-off territory of high school.
In the early years, Elliott, now 14, was content with my backpack and clothing choices (up until middle school he wore jeans with elastic waists because, bless his heart, they were comfortable). His fashion-blindness allowed me to indulge in years of L.L.Bean backpacks, which I favored as much for their Escher-like patterns of frogs and lizards as for the fact that I could get them embroidered with his name (until, after watching him trot off to the bus with his full name broadcast across his back, I decided that initials seemed less likely to enable stranger danger).
In fifth grade, years after my friends with daughters had become slaves to logos and trends, Elliott suddenly became accessory-sentient. His best friend had adopted a messenger bag, so nothing would now satisfy but a single-compartment carry-all with a solitary cross-chest strap. It was a disaster, essentially a stiff canvas pillow case. Stuffed full, it was unwieldy and uncomfortable. More damning, as Elliott says, "It was too much like a purse." The transition into middle school would have required a new pack anyway, but messenger bags were definitely been there-done that. Once again the choice of pack was left to me.
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Having fallen for a line of red luggage from SwissGear, the makers of the Swiss Army Knife, I splurged and bought the largest of the backpacks for Elliott's sixth-grade year. About the size of a mini-refrigerator, the bag turned out to be a good choice because the boy refused to use his locker and ended up carrying everything in it -- lunch, gym clothes, at least two hardcover novels and all of his binders and textbooks -- every day. He looked like he was shipping out to boot camp. Like the Swiss, this pack was reliably obsessive-compulsive, with any number of little pockets, pouches and hooks held up by thick, padded straps. The bag was also indestructible, which meant heavy. Fully loaded, it was scoliosis waiting to happen. By the end of the year, even Elliott conceded that it was too much of a good thing. Last I saw that bag it was being used by his father as a well-stuffed carry-on bag en route to Romania.
The pack I purchased for the seventh grade was generic on every level. No recognizable brand, no embroidered initials, medium-sized with three pockets, in a nonoffensive khaki color. It was accepted, if not embraced, until the large flap that covered the zippered interior pockets proved to have a fatal flaw: It closed with Velcro. As Elliott says, "Velcro is the devil's playground." When it works, it's great. But it doesn't work well as the closure element of an overstuffed pack, and soon that flap, well, flapped incessantly.
Last year was the watershed year in backpack purchases. Elliott made it clear that no input from me, other than a credit card, would be required. He knew what he wanted, having targeted the bag of his dreams at a trendy teen boutique at the mall. It was expensive, but his eyes lit up with such glee when he modeled it for me that, for a mother who sometimes misses having a daughter to take shoe shopping, the moment inspired complete acquiescence. The shop even threw in a hat he would never wear. And as it turned out, the backpack was all that: a trendy, tough, well-designed skater's bag (complete with the straps for the board) with just the right number and sizes of pockets in an indeterminate smoky black and gray pattern that was neither abstract nor camouflage. But I really knew it was a successful purchase when I ran into the best friend who had inspired the messenger bag debacle years earlier with his wild-eyed father. Having been assigned to find the son a backpack and now in Day 2 of searching, the exhausted man rushed toward me, desperate to know where Elliott had bought the backpack his son was now pining to own. Score.
And so, I naively believed that that bag, such an unequivocal success last year, would be good enough as a starter pack for high school. I knew it was the biggest transition year of all, but even as I was buying jeans two sizes bigger than ones I had purchased three months earlier, I was sure he hadn't outgrown the rather spendy, still trendy pack. As we prepared to shop, I said, "What about your pack? Still good to go, right?" He gave me the "You're kidding, right?" look. Then he fetched his backpack and showed me the scar across a seam that had been rather well-repaired with big looping stitches. "You didn't tell me your pack was torn," I said, wondering when I had veered so far out of the loop. "Dad fixed it," he shrugged. "But it's not going to hold out another year." I see that, too. And so we were off ...