Like a lot of the back-to-school set around town, when 7-year-old Cooper Parcus starts second grade at Condit Elementary School this month, he’ll be carrying more than just books in his backpack.
In addition to the “junk mail” his mom Adrienne Isaac sends with him daily (an envelope with a daily piece of candy inside), Cooper stocks his backpack creatively. So much so that, according to Cooper, his teacher last year told him he was one of the most creative kids she knew.
That’s because, for show-and-tell, Cooper came to school with his very own homemade invention – what he dubbed a “magic potion” – stashed proudly in his backpack.
“It’s an easier way to take a bath,” Cooper says of his invention. “I put water, shampoo and conditioner in there and shook it up. Then you just put it on your body and your head, and then you don’t really have to take a shower. It’s much easier.”
When asked where his mom was when he came up with his potion and packed it for school, Cooper said, “On a date.”
Dare to take a look into any kid’s backpack, and you’re likely to find some interesting – and unexpected – stuff. Often, what’s inside offers a peek into a child’s personality and what it is they value most. And if you’ve ever noticed the myriad gadgets hanging off zippers and straps, you’ll know that surveying what’s hanging outside the packs can be equally as intriguing.
Debbie Scholl, who owns Fundamentally Toys in Rice Village, says there’s always something fun and collectible to decorate kids’ backpacks. She says the newest things on the horizon are Cube Figures Gigo Blocks. “They’re cute little snap-together figures with names like Rudolph, Walter, Hank and Thelonious,” Debbie says. “There’s a whole collection of them, and kids can change out the parts, so there’s always a new character to create and trade with friends.”
Then there’s the tried and true. Clayton Medlenka, a 10-year-old fourth grader at Frostwood Elementary School, is like lots of other school-aged kids around the city and collects Kooky pens, the click-pens with faces and wacky rubber hair. At one point, he carried his full stash of 24 pens to school in and attached to the outside of his backpack, before he ran into a small problem.
“Well, the school banned them,” Clayton says. “So I can’t have them in my backpack anymore. They’re just in my cubby at home.”
Being resourceful, Clayton soon figured out another way to make his backpack his own. “Now I clip two Uglydolls to the outside – Nandy Bear and Dr. Somebody,” he says. The funny-looking plush guys make an original statement that’s not too original. “A lot of other people started bringing them, so I thought I would, too,” Clayton says.
His younger siblings also like to hang things outside their packs. Austin, 5 and entering Frostwood’s kindergarten, hangs key chains on his backpack. His favorites are the ones that light up. Why? “Because they light up,” he says.
Sister Megan Medlenka, 7 and entering second grade at Frostwood, says she carries all the usual things – “my notebooks, my sweaters, my pencils” – and multiple small bottles of hand sanitizer, all in different scents. “My favorites are called ‘Caribbean Escape’ and ‘I Love Cake.’” She’s stocked seven of them – “two inside my backpack and five hanging outside on my keychain. That way, when I run out I have more.”
She’s never actually run out.
West University Elementary School’s yearbook has become 5-year-old Mary Rose Canterbury’s prized possession – and a fixture in her backpack. After her friends signed its inside cover last year, Mary Rose stashed it away in her backpack “forever.”
“But if I want to look at it I take it out,” she says.
An aspiring writer, Mary Rose also carries a blue journal her teacher gave her on the first day of school last year. “That way, I write stuff like poems and stories in it, and when I’m done I can draw a picture.”
Some of the other youngest backpackers aren’t quite as systematic. Fletcher Dowell, a 6-year-old going into first grade at River Oaks Baptist School, chooses from several backpacks on any given day. Some days it’s his Spider Man bag, some a blue camouflage one (currently his favorite). The contents are an equally important daily decision.
“Every day I bring a snack, a drink, pen and paper and a notebook,” he says. Beyond that, he’s packed a baseball signed by Willie Stargell (unbeknownst to his mom Brandi, who considers the baseball her own childhood treasure) and a tiny dead snake that he found outside his grandparents’ house, tucked safely – and thankfully – into a Ziploc.
As kids get older, what’s inside tends to bear more lasting significance.
Charlotte Rogers stuffs her backpack to capacity. The Hunters Creek Elementary School student preparing to start fourth grade hauls around stacks of books, a little mad money (just in case), a magic rock and several of the popular Bella Sara fantasy horse cards. School supplies are optional.
Allie Baker, an incoming fifth grader at Horn Elementary School, has built a business that she runs out of her backpack.
“My friend has a house in New York, and her cousin makes everything you can imagine out of duct tape,” Allie says. “So we watched a video on YouTube and figured out how to make wallets and bracelets and stuff like that, and we got a whole load of duct tape and started making stuff.”
When Allie and the six other girls on her Odyssey of the Mind team (an international problem-solving competition) came in second place in Texas, they were invited to compete in Iowa at the World Finals. Needing to figure out a fundraiser to help get them to Iowa, the girls thought of their skills with duct tape. They began fashioning flower-topped pencils, wallets and other colorful trifles with the intent to sell them. Then, they hauled the duct tape and their creations to school in their backpacks each day and started selling their wares – right out of their backpacks – for $10 apiece.
Allie’s mom Rika thought $10 was a little steep, but the girls surprised her. “We earned like $1,200,” Allie says. (The industrious girls organized a couple of bake sales to add to the coffers as well.)
“It gets a little heavy, but I still have some duct tape that I carry around in my backpack because if we wanted to make stuff it would be right there. Or if my folder ripped,” Allie says.
And then there’s the issue of fashion. Cami Ferguson, a fourth grader at Condit Elementary School, has become something of a trendsetter in the world of school backpacks. While Cami was still carrying around a traditional backpack, her older sister was using a Vera Bradley bag to tote things to and from school. Cami liked the looks of it.
“I asked my mom if I could use a tote too,” Cami says. “It just seemed easier to reach in and take out my books, and easier to put in junk and homework that teachers want you to take home.”
So Cami’s mom Jill found a hand-me-down Vera Bradley tote and let her try it out. Cami confirmed her suspicions – the tote made hauling her stash of books much easier. And it looked good.
“My friends went to Bering’s after they saw my bag, and I just told them it makes a wonderful backpack,” Cami says.
“I told my sister that my friends were copying her idea, and my sister said that’s a good compliment. That makes me feel good.”
Whatever the design or the contents may be, you have to love that something as simple as a backpack or a tote bag can make kids feel secure and happy as they venture out into the world of school and beyond.
To help kids who don’t have access to new backpacks or school supplies each year, consider donating to YMCA Operation Backpack. The goal is to provide 45,000 area children entering elementary and middle schools with full backpacks. Just buy a backpack, fill it with supplies, enclose a note of encouragement and drop it off at a YMCA or sponsor location. Go to the Y’s site at ymcahouston.org/operation-backpack for a list of supplies and drop-off locations or to make a monetary donation.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Horn Elementary School principal Sarah Harrington and staff members Lupe Garcia and Donna Kelly for their help with the photo shoot.