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Sully's Backpack

Recently, one of my friends and former colleagues told me that she believes anyone who wants to become a teacher should read The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. I’d had this book sitting on my bedside table for a while, but it was this comment that made me put it at the top of my stack. Books are a way we process and understand ideas we haven’t (yet) dealt with; books take us out of ourselves and our experience. What this book did so nicely for me was to help me understand some of what I’m experiencing now in a new way.

As I’ve written about before, my oldest is about to start Kindergarten, and as a part of this, he needs a backpack. I’ve been looking forward to going with him to pick this item out for months; I both love supply shopping for school and deeply appreciate that Sully is developing a strong sense of his own style. But when I’m being honest, I also feel nervous about how other kids will react to the choices he makes around his hair, clothing, and accessories. My child loves pink and purple, he adores sparkles, and he loves his long hair. Other kids (ranging from his cousin to strangers we’ve met in the park) have asked him whether he's a boy or a girl and told him that he likes “girl” stuff. He’s adamant that he’s a boy and that he can like whatever he wants, but I worry about how much of this rhetoric he’ll contend with come September.

So, when I looked at the website of the store where I’d take him to buy his backpack, I identified what I thought he’d go for. I had two top contenders—one with rainbow polka dots, and one covered in brightly colored flowers. There were other lovely bags: there were dinosaurs, bright green alligators, a bag with stars and galaxies, and a dark blue bag covered with butterflies. When we went into the store, Sully made a beeline for the backpacks, looked around for about 30 seconds, and picked up the bag with brightly colored flowers. We walked around a little more, and I asked him to consider other options. At one point he picked up a bag with different flowers on it, and I wondered if he liked that better. He told me no; he just thought his brother would like it. Inside my own head, I wondered whether I should push a little bit harder to try and get him to pick a bag that would be more traditionally boyish, but I didn’t. After finding the matching lunch box and a water bottle, we paid for his back-to-school haul. He happily walked out of the store, eager to come home and show his dad what he’d picked.

I’ve been thinking about this trip since we left store, and partly, it’s been resonating because of what I’m reading. Later in the story, there’s a pointed exchange between two characters. Briefly, our protagonist, Linus Baker, is a rule-following inspector who is sent to an island to observe how well some magical children are doing under the care and tutelage of the head of their orphanage. Here, the mayor of the nearby town is (lovingly) questioning why Linus is considering returning to his “normal” life at the conclusion of his month-long visit rather than staying in a place he has clearly grown very comfortable. She says, “‘A home isn’t always the house we live in. It’s also the people we choose to surround ourselves with. You may not live on the island, but you can’t tell me it’s not your home. Your bubble, Mr. Baker. It’s been popped. Why would you allow it to grow around you again?’” (281).

Over the course of my adulthood, I’ve thought a great deal about what people choose and why. I’ve done a lot of work around parsing what I actually like from what society has told me I’m supposed to like, and my husband and I have tried to be intentional about letting our kids make decisions for themselves whenever possible. But in thinking about my child and this bag, I couldn’t help but think about what reactions he may get and whether those reactions are worth his discomfort and potential frustration. But I think I stopped myself from pushing too hard on him picking out a different bag because I would rather help him navigate a child saying an unkind thing or making assumptions about who he is than feel like his own mother is the one being unkind and restrictive. I want him to know that he is exactly right, just as he is, and I don’t think he would feel that if I asked him to choose a different bag because some kid might say something negative about it.

Those moments are formative, and I don’t want Sully to think he’s entitled to a happy life. Misfortune will find him, and I want him to know that he can handle anything that comes his way. I want him to know that any experience he’ll have, any time he discovers the world isn’t the way he thought it should be, he’ll have people who love and care for him to help him move through his feelings.

So, every teacher should read this book. And so should every adult who cares about kids.

Have you read a book that’s made you think about teaching or parenting recently? We’d love to know what it is!

Photo courtesy of Sara (and Sullivan) Bailey.


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