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March 16, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

What’s In Your Backpack?

On Wednesday, I asked my students to judge one of their classmates. I requested that a volunteer in each of my 10th grade classes take every item out of his or her backpack and wallet. I then asked the volunteer to lay these possessions on my desk. I allowed the other students to examine and make a list of these items; they then wrote a character sketch of the volunteer, based solely on this list.

The students were initially at pains to see rather than judge.  They carefully explained that they knew the volunteer’s name and location in Korea based upon his or her student ID card.  Despite the volunteers’ Korean names and facial features, in the absence of passports or national ID cards, the other students refused to conclusively identify the volunteers as Korean.  Likewise, although they knew our school’s tuition is relatively high, they consistently said they could only infer that the volunteers came from relatively wealthy backgrounds.

Students did judge the volunteers, however, based upon what they perceived to be the volunteers’ study habits.  One student wrote that a volunteer was lazy for not having answered many of the questions in an SAT preparation book.  Another called a volunteer careless based on the way the volunteer had arranged some math study materials within a folder.  A third called a volunteer, who had a computer in his bag, ill-prepared for having highlighters but not pens or pencils among his belongings.  Some students even stated in their writing that they wanted to offer the volunteers academic advice.

After the students handed in their work on Friday, we read and discussed Pico Iyer’s essay “Why We Travel.”  Our conversation turned at one point to Iyer’s observation that “what we all too often ignore when we go abroad is that we are objects of scrutiny as much as the people we scrutinize, and we are being consumed by the cultures we consume, as much on the road as when we are at home.”  I thought this an appropriate coda to the exercise.  I continue to take great inspiration from this minimalist packing list honed from Simon Fairbairn and Erin McNeaney’s three years of constant travel.

What’s in your backpack?

Edit (March 17, 2013):  Mark Wiens of migrationology.com just posted this wonderful packing list and video which explains what’s in his backpack with his typical humor and wisdom.

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