Dr. Thomas A. Gorman is the Superintendent of the Montville Township Public Schools in Montville Township, New Jersey. The district is a pre-k through grade 12 district in Morris County, NJ. There are five elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school in Montville Township. The district has over 3,400 students enrolled for the 2023-2024 school year.

Each September, school bells bring students home from the beaches and back into the classrooms. With the last warm summer breezes, there is an unmistakable feeling of excitement, possibilities, and hope in the air. It is an exhilarating time for students, teachers, and parents alike.  

While driving to work on the first day of school, I saw families and students gathered at bus stops. One anxious grandparent was constantly peering down the street looking for the expected bus. In the front doorway of a house, I saw a young student gathering his things and rushing to get out of the house for the bus that would eventually stop near his home. The positivity of the first day of school was palpable.  

As I drove, I noted one common item – each student carried a backpack.  

Backpacks are not just practical; they’re personal. They are a statement of who a student is and what they value. Carrying that backpack becomes a badge of honor, symbolizing a child's dreams and aspirations.

In the past three years, I have had the joy of seeing two of my children graduate from college. Earlier this month, I dropped my third child off for her sophomore year. One of the parent rituals of having a child attend college is helping them move in and out of their dorm room. There is a clear difference between freshman year and the years that follow. Freshmen get the royal treatment with upperclassmen helping unpack the car and lug bags and boxes to their rooms. But as time goes on, you have to fend for yourself.

With each trip up and down the stairs, I could not help but marvel at the sheer volume of “stuff” deemed necessary for collegiate survival. After all this stuff was neatly, at least for the first day, organized in drawers, closets, and under the bed, my daughter had everything she needed to live and succeed. As we were about to leave, I glanced at her room and noticed her backpack hanging on the desk chair. While it bore a resemblance to the one she used in elementary school, it had evolved into a more fashionable upgrade. Yet its purpose remained the same – to carry the tools for productive learning while away from the dorm room. While many of the contents have also changed – she now has a graphing calculator and an iPhone – many of the educational tools, such as pens, paper, and a laptop, remain the same as elementary school.

Last May, my oldest daughter moved back home after graduation. She will be attending graduate school nearby so we needed to make some adjustments to accommodate her studies at home. Upon her return, she brought home boxes of stuff that would not be going away in a few months. This stuff is now permanently in our house.  

Watching the constant shuffle of belongings in and out of our home, up and down the stairs, into drawers, and sometimes piling up in corners, it reminded me of George Carlin's hilarious take on "Stuff." He joked about how the meaning of life was finding a place for all your stuff. A home, he stated, was a spot to place all your stuff and when on vacation you pack a smaller amount of your stuff into luggage to carry with you. In fact, many Americans have accumulated so much stuff that storage facilities are a booming business. He further quipped, and as my credit card bills can attest, we are always buying more stuff to bring back into the home.

Each academic year, students accumulate a wealth of stuff within the classroom. Teachers tirelessly impart knowledge throughout the year, urging students to comprehend and commit this “stuff” to memory. This information accumulates in the students' minds, forming the foundation upon which they will build in subsequent years across various subject areas. This pattern continues throughout a child’s education and this “stuff” — this knowledge — is then carried everywhere they go. It is this knowledge that will eventually help solve problems, lend a hand to those in need, and keep others safe. Indeed, this “stuff” is an integral part of each student's identity.

The backpack is a place for the things students carry with them, but beyond the physical items children carry on their backs, they are also carrying a host of intangibles that affect their social, emotional, and academic experiences. Students carry only a fraction of their essence within their backpacks. The symbolic backpack carries a student's hopes and dreams. There is so much more going on in their minds and hearts. Beneath the surface, a rich tapestry of “stuff” — thoughts, visions, and dreams — unfolds, guiding them on their path of self-discovery and growth. 

My hope for this school year is for students to pursue the stuff their dreams are made of and continue along their journey of who they will become and how they will positively impact the world.