Church ceremonies to bless school backpacks are becoming more common this time of year as students return to school. One function of this practice is to focus the parents, relatives and friends on supporting their students in their academic efforts.
And for several years, backpacks have been associated with our efforts to feed poor children when they leave school. Emulating the public USDA program of free school lunches, this private community effort supplements evening and weekend meals for our children in poverty by stuffing non-perishable packaged food into student backpacks.
But to me, I will forever remember school backpacks in another context.
In 2008, I landed in China in time to see the country’s response to the Wenchuan earthquake of May 12. A massive earthquake struck at 2:28pm, just after students had returned to school at 2:00pm. This region of Sichuan is mountainous. Many cities and small towns were destroyed leaving no buildings standing and taking a toll of over 80,000 dead and missing.
China is a country where the daily focus is on making money. But for those next weeks, that would be set aside. All eyes across China were riveted to the wide-open televised press coverage of the earthquake destruction. In contrast to the bungled American response to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans—an anniversary that we are currently observing—the engineering corps of the People’s Liberation Army was underway to the earthquake within hours.
Rescue troops with shovels and jacks dropped from hovering helicopters onto slopes where no flat land remained. Premier Wen Jiabao, trained in geo-mechanical engineering, was placed in charge of the rescue efforts. Factories worked 24-7 to turn out tents and pre-fabricated dwellings while military trucks brought raw materials to the factories and hauled rescue supplies and equipment to the disaster area.
Within a few days, television crews from every province were focusing on the blue tent cities that were erected to protect survivors from the weather. But first and foremost were the temporary schools erected from blue pre-fabricated walls and ceilings. There was still two more months of school remaining. And in China, schools got the same high priority as field hospitals. And where there was no flat land to set up a school, students said goodbye to their family and got on trains to journey to undamaged schools across China where teachers added another row of desks. Seats were removed from trains and fitted to hold stretchers to transport the wounded to outlying hospitals. Trains gave top priority to medical personnel and patients—and students.
Those first days, Chinese citizens saw on television that although the students had teachers and pre-fab schools, they did not have books or paper or pens to write with. Reaching down into the very soul of every Chinese citizen was the desperate need to get these surviving students academically equipped to finish the school year. The cry went out from the public: backpacks! —Backpacks filled with textbooks and school supplies.
While the medical community across China was sending all their extra vascular stents needed for treating crush victims, schools scoured their closets for extra textbooks. Money flowed in from the public across the country; the Chinese people were contributing to the backpack effort.
Within a few days, the television showed the results. The government and PLA pushed inward on the broken roads with land-moving and rescue equipment first. Medical vehicles were close behind. But right behind that came the trucks with backpacks. Within a few days, disheveled students still without access to clean clothes or a bath, could be seen trudging to school with brand new backpacks laden with school supplies.
Today, when I see a new backpack, it always reminds me of how the children of China are fortunate, indeed blessed, to live in a society that so values their education.