Lowry: Of Backpacks and Other Hard Truths

August 31, 2012

The subject of backpacks didn't come up at the Republican convention this week in Tampa, and it won't come up when the Democrats gather next week in Charlotte.

And that's too bad. Backpacks are a staple of the American way of life, a pressing and sometimes unmet need this time of year.

You see, not every working family in America longs for an Irish setter named Seamus, but most of them want backpacks for their school-age kids. Indeed, if you look at it in a certain utilitarian way, a backpack may be as important to a child's growing up as any other singular possession they own.

Yet in some households, backpacks must take a back seat, fall down the pecking order, somewhere down below decent food and clothing and cough syrup. So it's no surprise there's been such a response to backpack and book bag giveaways conducted in recent weeks by various non-profits in Passaic County, and one very visible one, Better Education for Kids, out of New Brunswick.

Julio Tavarez, Paterson's 5th Ward councilman, explained it to me earlier this week. It's in part, he said, because so many adults in low-income families are still struggling to find work, or struggling to feed their children on a part-time wage.

"It's as bad as I've ever seen," said Tavarez, who was recently reelected to a second term. "I can't walk a block without someone telling me they're looking for a job."

That's why the efforts of so many non-profits in the city and across the state are so critical on this, the eve of another hectic school term.

Backpack bonanza

Tavarez and city board of education member Wendy Guzman co-sponsored a backpack drive a couple of weeks ago — with the support of city non-profit Sociedad Pro Desarrollo de Ranchete — at the new Roberto Clemente Middle School. They handed out more than 300 book bags or backpacks. Those intended for younger children included coloring books.

"We have a lot of working families in the city where a parent may be working only 15 to 20 hours a week," Tavarez said. "Giving them a book bag may not sound like much, but it's something they can give to their children … that's $60 they might be able to put toward paying their gas bill or light bill."

Councilman Andre Sayegh, working with the non-profit World Organization of Positive Action, gave out 170 backpacks at School 9 in the 6th Ward, while United Way of Passaic County has distributed more than 3,000 backpacks countywide. A number of other organizations — some partnering with private businesses — are continuing similar efforts into next week. One of the biggest, at Center City Mall on Saturday, Sept. 8, will include a school supply giveaway sponsored by United Way, along with a book distribution that's part of Dream Big, a cooperative program presented by the Paterson Education Fund and Paterson Public Library.

The point is, in some parts of this state, where the unemployment rate has been into the double digits since the recession hit in 2007, the need remains great. Of course, you can't eat a backpack, and it won't keep a child warm in winter, but it is something, and those who receive the help are grateful.

Just take a look at some of the responses that have come in on Tavarez's website:

"I am a single mom who works but unfortunately my hours have been cut. I have 4 children in public school and these book bags will be a great help. Thank you."


"Estoy bien alegre con este tipo de ayuda que le están brindando a los niños al igual que los padres," which translated, means "I am very happy for this type of assistance that is being provided to children as well as parents."

Basic need

During his keynote address to Republicans Tuesday, Governor Christie spoke of lessons learned from his Sicilian mother, among them the virtue of facing up to hard truths. The hard truths in the halls of Washington are very different from the hard truths on the streets of Paterson and Passaic, and in too many other challenged cities in New Jersey.

That's why the backpack conversation is a vital one. It is one of the basics for so many poor and working-class families heading into another school year.

It is a metaphor for the times in which we live, yet it's not the sort of thing that makes exciting fodder for political conventions. It doesn't fit conveniently into their metric of "feel good" moments.

It is not the sort of issue the candidates address because New Jersey is not a "swing state," and Passaic is not a "swing county." It is just an ordinary place, a place where people live, many of them paycheck to paycheck. It is far from the madding crowds and the balloons that are found in convention halls.

It is a place where in some small, cramped quarters, low-income parents make do, make decisions on the hard truths that life has dealt, and sometimes, once in a while, get to glimpse a glow on their child's face when they open a brand-new backpack.