What’s In Your Backpack?

Just the other day I was thinking about the movie, “Up In The Air.”  No, it was not because I was daydreaming about the oh so handsome George Clooney who stars in the film, (o.k. well maybe just a bit), but it was what that handsome actor’s character had to say during one of the scenes.  In the film, the character Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has a secondary job that allows him to deliver motivational speeches to encourage individuals to rid themselves of excess physical and emotional baggage.  The speech goes as follows:

How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things. The things on shelves and in drawers, the knick-knacks, the collectibles. Feel the weight as that adds up. Then you start adding larger stuff, clothes, table-top appliances, lamps, linens, your TV.


The backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. And you go bigger. Your couch, bed, your kitchen table. Stuff it all in there. Your car, get it in there. Your home, whether it’s a studio apartment or a two bedroom house. I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now try to walk. It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living.


Now, I’m gonna set that backpack on fire. What do you want to take out of it? What do you want to take out of it? Photos? Photos are for people who can’t remember. Drink some ginkgo and let the photos burn. In fact, let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?


Now, this is gonna be a little difficult, so stay with me. You have a new backpack. Only this time, I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office, and then you move into the people that you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, your brothers, your sisters, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend or your girlfriend.


You get them into that backpack. And don’t worry. I’m not gonna ask you to light it on fire. Feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake – your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders?


All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime – star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.


Seeing this speech again got me thinking.

What is in my students backpacks and how much do their lives weigh?

It’s easy to think of our own backpacks as adults.  We think about the day ahead of us with our meals to make, our children to feed, our jobs to attend to, our bills to pay, the balancing act of keeping our relationships healthy with others and also with ourselves and so on.  But, do we consider the backpacks that our children or our students wear?

We should – because they do wear them.  They may even be heavier than our own.

Much like the household items Ryan Bingham speaks of, a child might be entering our classroom in the morning with a backpack full of “stuff.”  Of course there is the usual weight of water bottles, gym clothes, homework and textbooks. However, this “stuff” could also mean the excess of videogames, television, or computer programs that they entertained themselves with for hours, under the influence of violence, or just the temporary absence from reality.

It could be the unhealthy “stuff” found in their kitchen refrigerator or cupboards that was all that was available to supposedly sustain their energy for the day.

Perhaps the “stuff” found in their backpacks is the swarms of negative media messages that glare our kids in the faces each day from magazines, posters, and commercials.

Then there are the “people” Ryan Bingham referred to, that are stuffed into our backpacks.  These same children with “stuff,” may also have “people” in their backpacks too.  Unfortunately, some of these “people” may be heavier than others.

The heaviness can come from a simple fight that a student hears parents having before leaving the home, to a divorce that has to be dealt with, an illness, ailment or death of a loved one, or the adjustment of being new to a country, right down to the extreme weight of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.  Now that is a heavy backpack to bear by a child.

While kids may be walking into our classrooms with these heavy backpacks, they may also be walking back into their own homes at night with a different weight across their shoulders.

The weight of this backpack may surface from the daunting schoolwork that is to be completed with or without a parent’s help that night.

One negative comment on an assignment can carry the weight of an elephant.

The heavy words coming from a bully’s mouth to your child that day would add several more pounds.

Finally, the pressure to fit in and be accepted can carry what almost feels like the weight of the world.

I do not speak of these weights in our children’s backpacks to be negative; rather, I hope to provide a very visual reminder of what kids’ backpacks may be filled with these days, every time they walk into our classroom, or into our homes.

It can be easy to reprimand children’s behaviour before we consider why the behaviour is occurring in the first place.

Take time, teachers and parents, to first assess the weight of your own backpack.  How much are those straps leaving an imprint on your shoulders?  What are you doing about these scarring marks?

Now consider the backs and shoulders of our children.  Try to consider what your kids or your students might be carrying with them into the classroom each day and back into the home at night.

Mindfulness can help with this weight.

Mindfulness is for everyone.  It’s a way for you to loosen the straps on the backpack you wear each day and lighten the load you carry around.

There is just one part of that speech, that George Clooney’s character delivers, that I am in disagreement with.  He states that humans are not meant to live symbiotically and that we are sharks, not swans.

That is not what we have to choose for humanity however.  We can collectively choose to be symbiotic swans.

Think about the next time you see someone with a heavy backpack…how easy would it be for you to loosen the straps for them?






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