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Setting The Books Free

School lockers are evidently going away:

Once the gravitational center of the high school day, lockers long ago lost their allure, and their usefulness seems a relic of an epoch of education that has slipped away. Movies and television shows about high schools may still feature students decorating lockers — or being shoved into them — but in the real world, lockers have all but been abandoned. The trend has expanded so rapidly and widely that schools are now removing individual student lockers from their hallways, and builders and designers for many new high schools don’t even include them in their plans.

“It’s a pretty big change that has taken place over the last few years,” said Sean Connor, a principal with Pfluger Architects, a large Texas firm that focuses on school construction. “It used to be the standard to provide individual lockers for every student. Now, the standard is no lockers or, at most, just a few.”

So, why the change? Anyone with a high schooler in their orbit knows that students now want everything they own with them all of the time. Books, phones, water bottles, headphones, laptops, tablets, snacks, coats, extra shoes. Where students used to swap out textbooks between classes, they now navigate the halls bent over by jam-packed backpacks like Himalayan Sherpas shuffling along without a base camp. This carryall approach probably ensures a steady stream of patients for chiropractors, and it bewilders parents who don’t understand why their kids can’t just use an assigned locker to store their stuff.

A few years ago I had read that lockers weren’t being used like they used to. I guess it makes sense that they would stop putting them in schools.

I get a kick out of this because for once I was way ahead of my time. For most of my high school career, I didn’t use my locker. In fact, one year I even sold use of it to someone else. A lot of my reasons match those of young people today. I went to a very large school and it was often impossible to go from classroom to classroom with a trip to the locker in between within seven minutes. And who wanted to spend precious lunch time making that journey? In middle school lockers were a big deal because you had time to use them (five minutes between classes, but a much smaller school). They were the closest thing you had to a mailing address. But high school? What a hassle.

My mind was changed when I got a good look at myself. On television, in fact. Our school had a weekly “news” program done by students. There was this really funny kid that did a traffic report of various hallway congestion (including one hallway known for its endless traffic jams). There was video of that and lo and behold, there I was.

All told my books weighed quite a lot. I had a large enough duffel to carry all of it. And I was a pretty big guy. But even so, it’s hard to carry 25 pounds in a bag without slouching. At the time, I was in between being fat and thin but the slouch that came with lugging that around accentuated the not-thin. Also, I determined, I needed a haircut.

So I asked Mom if I could get a more traditional backpack. I kicked the occupant of my locker out. I sacrificed 5-10 minutes of my 30-minute lunch period. But by god I was not going to look so terrible walking down the hallways.

And I didn’t.

Within the week, I was getting compliments about how something had changed. They’d note the hair cut but say it wasn’t that. I’m relatively sure it was the posture.

I suppose I am impressed by the grit of the young folks. Maybe I would have been able to get by if I had a proper backpack instead of a duffel. They just didn’t make backpacks large enough back then, but maybe they’re larger now? Or maybe the books are smaller or they didn’t tell the reporter that they were leaving them behind.
Either way, I can’t really make a big show about “kids these days” when they’re mostly just circling around to what I did (until I didn’t do it anymore).

Image by vauvau Setting The Books Free


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Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter. ...more →

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63 thoughts on “Setting The Books Free

  1. Some of it may be so many schools have gone to laptops and online textbooks. I don’t know.

    I had a locker in high school (back in the 80s) but I remember rarely using it; I went to a prep school and I just remember carrying what textbooks I needed (a lot of the books we had were either smaller – the books for English were, like, actual paperback versions of things like the Greek plays – or they were for use as references at home and were not really needed in class).

    Also it was a small school and often if you had your name in stuff, you could leave it around and it would still be there when you got back, because everyone knew everyone else and if someone found someone with your book, they’d call them out for it.

    I carried a backpack, partly so I had a place to keep my wallet and a few other things (didn’t carry a purse in those days). And for my notebooks – note-taking was a big thing at my school. In some ways it was run like a college…

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  2. If schools are going digital, or adopting a pedagogy that does not require textbooks in the classroom, then I don’t see an issue with this.

    But when I see kids & teens walking to and from school loaded down with packs that would give a Marine pause, I start to wonder what the hell is wrong with that school.

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  3. I’m not sure I had a locker in high school back in the 90s. I mean, I must’ve? But I don’t remember it at all (despite remembering my middle school locker, and even various lockers at gyms/pools I’ve used) – what I do remember is a mix of leaving stuff in the bandroom and carting it around. I still had good posture though; compared to the bari sax in a hard case I carried for miles at a time a few times a week, schoolbooks weren’t nothin’.

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    • Our high school band room had a long row of coat hooks along the back wall, and a couple of heavy-duty shelves above those, and the band kids used that as locker space. Since you could check out of study hall to go to the band room, and there was plenty of room to do homework (as well as practice), it made sense to keep your stuff there.

      I’m sure I had an assigned locker, but don’t recall ever using it.

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      • We had cubbies (unlocked) where we would stuff all our junk, in the hall between the practice rooms and the main band room (where only instruments could be stored). It was like kindergarten only with more singing. And more making out. And more studying. And less (nearly no) supervision. So… uh… not that much like kindergarten? But the cubbies were very comforting in a kindergarten-y kind of way. Our HS only
        had 1100 people in it, but since we lived in a small town and came from jr highs/neighborhoods that had about 300-400 people, it was nice to have somewhere to hole up where you actually knew everyone.

        We…. never actually had study hall in any way. We didn’t even have homeroom in high school, just started right in on our first 90 minute class that alternated depending on if it was an A day or a B day. But we had rehearsal of one form or another almost every day of the week, sectionals were sequential, plus we were allowed to go there for lunch instead of the cafeteria.

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  4. Yeah, even in the tail end of the 80’s, my locker got 3 visits a day:

    7ish: Drop off coat/jacket/lunch
    11ish: Pick up lunch
    3ish: Pick up coat/jacket
    (Early fall/late spring allowed this to be cut down to two visits.)

    Everything else fit in the backpack.

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  5. My kids’ schools have gone to everyone having a chromebook, that gets carried everywhere. Most essay/presentation type homework and some in-class assignments have to be done on those. However, they also have big heavy textbooks, paperbacks for English reading assignments, workbooks for math, and lab notebooks, all of which get stuffed in lockers between classes.

    Plus, here in the Northeast, a locker is useful for storing coats and boots in winter.

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    • When I retired from tech and went back to graduate school, I started seeing the neighborhood grade-school kids trudging past the house in the afternoon, bent under the load of the pack full of books. Since then, I’ve nagged my friend at Intel research to have the company develop at least a proof-of-concept tablet to replace textbooks. The specs were pretty straightforward: solid drop-resistant plastic, replaceable overlay on the display, touch screen, wireless charging. It was okay if it weighed a couple of pounds, that would still be enormously better than the pile of books the kids were dragging around. Bonus points for a high-res digitizer built into the display that was good enough to do a reasonable imitation of pen-and-paper with a stylus.

      My friend says that while the parents at Intel appreciate the advantages, there’s no corporate interest in something where one of the goals would be to make it dirt cheap to produce. What he said at the time was that Intel had two rules about product development: (1) sell more high-end processors; and (2) see rule #1. That might change now that Samsung has passed Intel in total integrated-circuit revenues globally.

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      • The other problem, which both kids have run into multiple times now, is that many teachers are not at all literate when it comes to using chromebooks and google classroom.

        You can’t replace textbooks if the teacher isn’t comfortable teaching from anything else. More importantly, you can’t replace workbooks if the teacher isn’t comfortable grading and making corrections on anything but paper. That isn’t to say they aren’t good teachers either – many of the least tech savvy ones are the best at engaging the students and getting ideas and subject matter across.

        Eventually I’m sure most teachers will have come up through school using laptops, pads, etc. and be perfectly comfortable using them, but we’re not there yet.

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        • Yeah, I hear you. The vision in my head is to provide something digital that is as close as possible to a paper textbook. PDF content so “turn to page 117” means the right thing. Test and grade however they want. I just want an end to watching the kids going by my house with a 30-pound pack on their back. Once that’s in place, we’ll go for the rest.

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  6. Could it be that this has little-to-nothing to do with the kids wantingto keep everything with them, and a whole lot to do with

    I went to a very large school and it was often impossible to go from classroom to classroom with a trip to the locker in between within seven minutes.

    I went to a smallish high school, and used my locker all the time.

    My wife went to a physically bigger school where she didn’t have time as you describe – some teachers gave her grief for being late, or for having too big a backpack. She let them choose one, since it was impossible to do neither.

    It would be part of a time honoured tradition to write about kids the days and their irrational preferences, while ignoring the fact that the adult-designed infrastructure and adult-determined requirements for their actions within it make that the only possible option…

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    • Actually I mis-remembered the story – some teachers didn’t want backpacks in their classrooms *at all*, and wouldn’t relent on either backpacks or a few minutes’ tardiness after she explained her situation. So she worked to rule – she brought her entire morning’s worth of books, notebooks, stationary, tampons, etc., all loose, and set them on her desk. The teachers relented in short order.

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      • In many districts now clear or mesh backpacks are mandated, presumably for “safety” (e.g., does the student have a weapon) reasons.

        As a young woman who “developed” before many of my peers, I can only imagine the agony of having to carry “monthly supplies” with me in a clear backpack. Maybe the popular or assertive kids, it wouldn’t have mattered for, but I suspect it would be yet another thing I’d be teased within an inch of my life on.

        Or maybe times have changed and speculating/harassing a girl about menstruation falls under “sexual harassment” now.

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  7. We didn’t have lockers at my high school in the 90s. I think it might have had something to do with drugs, but I don’t remember for sure. We also had planters at the bottom of the stairwells, but they were emptied out. According to one of our teachers, years before they had been filled with soil and plants, but pot kept popping up. Apparently concerns about drugs motivated a lot of the design decisions there.

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    • “We didn’t have lockers at my high school in the 90s. I think it might have had something to do with drugs”

      Same here. I Never knew the joys of a locker in my entire juvenile education but always dreamed about how awesome it would be to have one (they still had the lockers at the school: they were simply boarded up to remind you of what you couldn’t have).

      Oddly enough, as noted by Will, the school I work at has lockers and we can’t get the kids to keep things in the damn thing. They would rather carry it all around with them all day.

      The grass is always greener I guess.

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      • Did you go to school in a region without a thing that could meaningfully be called “winter”?

        They really couldn’t have done without lockers at my high school – even if you didn’t visit it between every class, it would have been ridiculous to go around in full winter gear all day.

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        • That’s California!

          A lot of California schools have multiple buildings and students walk outside to get from class to class. My Northeast High School was designed so students did not need to go outside during winter except to leave. Just one big building.

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          • My schools were always massive, solitary buildings. I have always bee curious how schools in CA handle to occasional moment when classes change during a downpour. Do kids just get wet, or is everyone allowed to be a few minutes late to wait out the rain?

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            • My schools were one building, but they were perpetually overcrowded so there were always temporary buildings. If it was raining, you just went out into the rain. The teachers out there tended to tolerate tardiness more than the average teacher, but that was often because they themselves had to move from one classroom to another* and by virtue of being where they were they were just further away.

              You didn’t get that tolerance after class when you were headed back to the main building, though. Meaning that going from Room 105 to T12 wasn’t a challenge, but going from T12 to 132 often was because the teacher in 132 doesn’t care where you came from.

              * – For example, coaches often had classrooms in the temporary buildings because they’d only teach social studies for two periods, and would coach for three. Or teachers who taught electives and traditional courses would sometimes have the electives in a temporary classroom and their regular classes in a regular classroom, if the needs were dissimilar (such as the elective being theater and therefor needing fewer desks and more space.

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            • We got wet. It was actually worse than that. I went to high school in the Mojave Desert. The genius who designed the school took “desert” to mean “It never rains.” In reality, it meant “It rarely rains, but when it does it often is a massive downpour.” Not only did this mean leaky roofs, but often there were sheets of water coming off the roof in front of a recessed doorway that you couldn’t get around using.

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          • Mine was one big building, in a sort of L shape. Trying to push your way through the halls to get from one tip of the L to the other would take more than the allocated 5 minutes, so it was generally smart to go outside and follow the hypotenuse for those.

            Cold isn’t a problem for quick runs like that, and living in a semi-arid place, rain was rarely an issue.

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        • I did, but the first year in the new high school we had the opposite problem. Construction ran somewhat over budget, so they decided to leave off the air conditioning compressors until the next year. In the then-current style, none of the windows opened. Naturally, we had record-breaking heat all fall, and were regularly let out early when the inside temperature reached whatever the statutory limit was.

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    • The post Sandy Hook designs for schools call for lockers to be located for easy surveillance. Basically, every time there is an incident in a high school (my d’s HS has had about six bomb threats this school year), the lockers get searched. A more rural school district had a lock-down when a shell casing was found on the floor during hunting season. They searched all the lockers and came up with nothing, but one of the lockers required someone with hazmat training to go through, which slowed down the process. I can see schools being passively hostile to lockers.

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  8. Allegedly a year or so after I graduated from high school, a kid was found with lots of pharma drugs in his locker for the dolling out and selling.

    I never used my locker in high school for the same reason that you mention. We did not have much time between classes and my locker was in an inconvenient area. My high school was not necessarily large but kind of oddly shaped.

    Though the real scandal occurred years after I graduated and at the other high school. A kid was arrested for taking the SATs for other kids. He was paid something like 1500 dollars a pop for this. He might or might not have done it in exchange for sexual favors from a girl at least once.

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    • He might or might not have done it in exchange for sexual favors from a girl at least once.

      I’m trying to figure out how he was able to pass for a girl attractive enough to trade sexual favors for a $1500 discount. Seems like there’s a catch-22 there. Unless they just didn’t check ID? I don’t remember.

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  9. I went to high school in the late 90’s/early 00’s and also happened to be part of the first class of a brand new sparkling open plan high school in the Space Coast of Florida and yeah, no lockers. Teachers largely either used handouts, copies, or there was a common set of the schoolbooks used during class and you usually just had your schoolbooks at home to use for homework for the vast majority of your classes.

    OTOH, when my family moved back to Pennsylvania and my younger siblings were going to high school there in a 90 year old building – yup, lockers.

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  10. I had a locker but never used it. It was way out of the way, in the art building. And even when I had an art class (3 years of ceramics) it was still out of the way. Oh, this was the ’80’s.

    Oh, and in CA high schools, you just got wet between classes, not a big deal as the buildings were fairly close.

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  11. In my current school, kids use their lockers. Big problem is there aren’t enough. In my last school, the locker shortage was even worse. Sure, kids who have cars can use them as lockers, but that’s maybe 10-30%.

    Most kids who don’t have lockers take their books home, and leave them there, which means they have to share books at school. Which is why I don’t use books a lot.

    I used to let kids leave books in my classroom, but they were stolen, mostly by Asian kids who didn’t have lockers and whose parents *demanded* their books be at home for tutors. So the books would always magically appear at the end of the semester. I removed all the bookshelves from my classroom so that unwary kids couldn’t leave them there. I’ll allow a few regulars to stash books but always remind them they could be stolen.

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  12. I teach high school English & once taught a semester of World & US History. The textbooks for both subjects are horrible, mostly useless. The old line about law review articles is that they’re written to be published, not to be read. High school textbooks are published to be purchased, not used.

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  13. Interestingly we had lockers and used them; our passing periods/break/lunch were long enough that I could do a morning, break, and lunch switch and still be able to get my sports bag and whatnot in time to make transit to practice, etc, after school.

    I recently looked at the schedule of what we expect will be my kids’ 7-8 middle school: 4 minute passing periods. Hopefully things are localized wisely.

    I also checked the high school bell schedules–they have 10 minute passing periods. Holy canoli!

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