Lifting the Backpack

A reflection on what we give and what we take


photo by Katie Golden

Before I begin, I would like to take a moment and thank procrastination and caffeine for getting me this far.

There comes a point in everyone’s life when they have to accept some unpleasant truths. Pluto is no longer a planet. Puns are the lowest form of humor, and there is rarely ever “chicken” in chicken nuggets.

Recently, I had to face an unpleasant truth of my own… That I’m a bit of a hoarder.

Two months ago, one of my best friends (and a chronic neat freak) took one look at my room and told me she “literally” could not take it anymore. So, instead of doing normal teenage stuff, like shopping or eating, we spent nine hours cleaning my room. Yes, nine hours. It was that bad.

After organizing my cabinets, desk, and color-coding everything, we came to my closet and she immediately pulled out six backpacks and asked, “What is this?”

And for a moment, I didn’t have an answer. Since fifth grade, I have taken every school backpack I owned and shoved them in a closet, untouched and unused since that school year ended.

Because when we thought we were learning math and science, we learned to be ourselves.”

I joked that I wanted to have the biggest bonfire at graduation. But that was a lie.

When I was eleven years old, I was diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease and, because of it, I have cumulatively missed an entire year of high school. I have been the empty seat in every classroom since my diagnosis. I lost my ability to write by hand, take gym, and regularly attend school.

There was a point where I never thought I would graduate. Which is why I kept those backpacks. They were my way of physically reminding myself that I made it one year and I could make it another. Every backpack was a win, my trophy against my disease. I thought those backpacks, filled with things like Rocket Math worksheets, contained everything I learned that year that mattered.

But it was only when I was staring down at that first backpack and across from one of my best friends that I realized how wrong I was.

Because when I look back at high school, it wasn’t those backpacks who supported me. The paper it contained didn’t teach me to become the person I am today. Those backpacks and the paper they held can burn for all it matters. What I learned, from the hardest years of my life, was the value of what other people can teach you. And how we depend on them to succeed.

A backpack didn’t ask me if I was feeling okay in the first period. A backpack didn’t take me to Taco Bell at 10 PM because I was in too much pain to sleep. A backpack didn’t offer me those little scraps of support that I needed to get through.

Because it’s the people who make us, not the paper. They were the ones who consoled us when we flunked a test, congratulated us on our accomplishments, and stood by us when we were finding our way. They called us out when did something unfair, watched our backs when we fought our battles, and advised us when we were lost.

The influence of others, both good and bad, taught us to be kind, to work hard, and to strive for who we wanted to be. So if we judge ourselves based solely on what is contained in a backpack, we will never be satisfied. Every person we have met during high school has helped us to recognize who we are, sitting here right now, at this moment: neat-freak friends, parents, teachers, coaches, and directors.

Because when we thought we were learning math and science, we learned to be ourselves.

That is our successfully completed course of study. That is graduation.

And whatever new challenge life gives us, and whatever way our best-laid plans bend and break, we still have that. Who we are, from what we have been taught by those around us.

And as we move on to different cities, different careers, and different lives, we leave clutching our diplomas like they’re the most important part of our high school careers. But they’re just another piece of paper, to be stored like how I stored my backpacks. Because the unpleasant truth is? Our diplomas don’t matter. The paper means nothing without the people who got us here.

And they’re here today. Watching us let go of their hands, lifting the backpacks from our shoulders, and stepping forward into the future they helped us create. So thank you. Thank you for making us what we are… And for what we will become.


The preceding article was originally submitted as a graduation speech for the Class of 2019 Commencement this Friday.