I can still see the hallway on the upper floor where my high school locker was located. Across from the typing center (yes we actually had a class devoted to typing on an actual typewriter which is now likely in the Smithsonian next to the rotary phone). It was just after the stairs leading to the journalism room and smack in the middle of the top row.
Remember the stress of combination lockers?
I remember gripping the paper containing my combination with sweaty hands as a freshman. Slowly turning and spinning the lock until I had committed the numbers and rotations to memory. It was social suicide to carry that cheat sheet longer than the first day. I mean, you couldn’t walk around like some kind of amateur although that is precisely what we were.
From the outside, each metal rectangle was identical. But once the lock was sprung, the locker took on personality and life. Pictures, notes, mirrors and all manner of decorations and memorabilia offered a glimpse into the owner’s character.
My locker was festooned with grainy Polaroids of my friends, a picture or two clipped from Tiger Beat Magazine and a whole lot of papers, old lunches and mess. That mess included notes folded until they resembled a flat trapezoid; the universal privacy insurance and warning not to snoop. My locker also served as a collection point for every jacket I owned, unnerving my mother when there was not one available at home. EVER.
My high school locker represented the chaos that was me
My disorganization came back to bite me each June when we had to clean out everything and restore it to dull, empty metal. However, there was no denying that it represented the chaos that was me as a high schooler.
Lockers were integral to all big holidays and milestones. Birthdays featured posters and streamers hastily taped to the outside and cards stuck through the slats at the top. Christmas, Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day were all reason enough to decorate as well.
Every morning, you could find me seated on the floor under my locker, back against the wall finishing homework or just hanging out with fellow locker-mates. It was a gathering place and necessary stop as we began our school day. In the afternoons we did the same in reverse; gabbing as we grabbed everything we needed before heading out for a productive night of required work.
My books, notebooks and binders rested on my hip as I moved through my day. I don’t recall anyone carrying a backpack but if they did, it certainly did not contain every book needed for each class. That’s why you had a locker, to keep from carrying around a crapton of junk.
The loss of the locker is a tragedy of sorts
Somehow in the decades following my high school graduation, the locker became a nuisance; an afterthought. It is an American tragedy, really.
Today, millions of students pass the locker-lined walls of high schools all over the US without a glance. Crumpled papers with locker combinations and locations are shoved in side pockets and rendered useless.
Is it because they are traveling head-down staring at their phones? Or the fact that the slightest head swivel might cause the 5-ton backpack to shift to an unmanageable level? Lockers have become another part of the institutional landscape like bulletin boards and trophy cases. Just another thing kids know is there, but have little use for on the daily.
What’s worse? Now we are constructing schools without lockers at all. We are not even pretending that they have value, worth or nostalgia. Tell that to Molly Ringwald. The locker was practically a co-star in every movie she made back in the day.
How can we leave the locker behind?
No doubt high school is barely recognizable when compared to the 80’s version. And rightfully so. Time marches on, progress is inevitable and improvements are needed. However, can the casualty of this new world be the locker?
How do kids express themselves and have a place that is all theirs? I have heard kids say they don’t have time to go to their locker between classes. Or that lockers aren’t cool, which is—frankly—soul crushing. After all, couldn’t students still stop by the locker and socialize before and after school?
Can’t they still decorate for birthdays? Did backpacks kill the locker or are they simply a byproduct of its untimely passing?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that memories of my trusty locker are as enduring as the metal used to construct it. Not even the hardiest of backpacks can say that.
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