Sam carried letters from his sister, Rachel, a junior at Johns Hopkins University. They weighed ten ounces, and he kept them folded up in plastic in the second pocket of his backpack. In the letters, she was chatty. She never mentioned high school, except to say, Sam, take care of yourself. On a late afternoon during free period, Sam would dig out the letters and read through them, familiarizing himself with the going-ons of Rachel's life. When he heard the bell he would get up, a little distracted, and meander through the hallways to his eighth period class. These letters caused him to light Jesse's lab paper on fire, which was embarrassing, but no one knew so it was okay.
The things they carried were determined largely by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were Ticonderoga pencils, folders, notebooks, wristwatches, chewing gum, candy, looseleaf paper, worksheets, books, lunch money, iPods, cell phones, TI-84 graphing calculators, index cards, ballpoint pens, Spanish books, and two or three three-ring binders. Together, these items weighed between 15 or 20 pounds, depending on a student's locker habits. Tim, who was always well-prepared, carried a belt that was specially modified to include pens and pencils. Frances, who insisted on fresh breath, carried orbit gum that her family bought in bulk from Costco. Freshmen, who were scared, clutched their schedules and maps to the school until they got the hang of things. By necessity, and because it was required, they all had lockers, but some chose not to use it. Very few carried hats. On their feet they carried sneakers, or, in summer, flip-flops. In the morning, Ashley carried muffins. Jeff carried a wallet, because he liked to have money on him. The other Jeff carried lactaid pills. Maddie carried a romance novel. Sarah carried a squash racket. Joe carried his calculator manual. Kelly carried a leopard-print comb, because her hair went frizzy when it was humid. Necessity dictated. Because it could get cold in the winters, each student carried a wool-lined down jacket, which weighed 1.4 pounds, but which often seemed much heavier.
What they carried varied by class.
When it was music theory, they carried blank staff paper. When it was chem, they carried pocket-sized periodic tables. For math, graph paper. For U.S., notes. On lab day, everyone carried closed-toe shoes, except for the people who were already wearing them. It was on one of these days when Sam lit Jesse's paper on fire. Jesse and Sam were lab partners, and Sam had just finished reading his sister's most recent letter, and he was thinking about a story she had told him where her friend had been thrown out of a Chipotle when he knocked over a bunsen burner onto Jesse's paper. Oh crap, Jesse said, my paper's on fire. My paper's on fire, he kept saying, which seemed profound. My paper's on fire. I mean really.
The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Jen carried her lucky keychain. Carissa carried two socks, on her feet, but they never matched, which was somehow significant. Jeff carried a piece of gum that had been presented to him as a gift by a fellow saxophonist. The gum was orange, unchewed, and still in its wrapper. It had been picked up from the ground after a trumpet player took a particularly nasty fall on the parking lot during band camp. The musician went to the hospital. The gum had fallen out of his pocket and landed on the fourty yard line, where the saxophonist picked it up.
You want my opinion, the saxophonist said, there's a definite moral here.
He picked up the gum and looked at it, turning it over in his hands.
Jeff asked what the moral was.
You know. Moral.
The saxophonist carefully made sure the wrapper was still covering every piece of the gum and handed it across to Jeff. Smiling, he turned away and shielded his eyes from the sun. It's like that book we read for lang, he said. Have gum, will travel.
Jeff thought about it. Yeah, well, he finally said. I don't see no moral.
There it is, man.
Get back to your spot.
On project days, they carried everything. They carried posters, CD's, flash drives, model airplanes, toothpick bridges, and cakes that looked like the plant cell. Once a week, when there was marching band after school, they carried a snack because they wouldn't go home in between school and practice. Tim carried a tie. Kacie, who played sports, carried a lacrosse bag. They carried colds and fevers, passing them between one another, spreading bacteria. They shared the sicknesses. Sam carried playing cards. Jimmy carried a golf tee. Frances carried an extra pair of glasses. They carried the school itself: by daylight they sat in class, at night they stayed up late to finish homework, but it was not learning, it was just the endless march, class to class, without purpose, nothing gained that would ever be of importance. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, all grades and numbers, simple grunts, toiling up the stairs and around the corners and through the courtyards, just marching, one step and the next and then another. Their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were on their math homework. For all the unknowns in high school, the x-factors and the failures, the ambiguities, the anguish, the mistakes, there was at least one abiding certainty, one regularity, one small comfort:
They would never be at a loss for things to carry.