COVID numbers are down and the familiar clanging of locker doors and combination locks has returned to high school hallways. As a high school principal, I couldn’t be happier.
High school students across Toronto have been without a locker since COVID began, so as not to promote congregation. When students were finally given a locker last month, it was like they received a belated birthday present. As one Grade 10 student at my school exclaimed: “I’ve always wanted a locker!”
I know what personal space can mean when people and their scads of stuff converge in shared space. Ten years ago, I decided to buy a house with my soon-to be-husband, Keith. He had a 15-year-old daughter, and I had a 17-year-old. Not wanting to install lockers in our home, we made like kindergartners and introduced cubbies to our grown-up household in the form of four re-purposed kitchen cabinets. Anything left lying around was quickly stowed away in the person’s cubby.
Every few months, someone would spend quality alone time with their cubby, enjoying a treasure trove of all things lost or forgotten: a birthday card (with money no less!), a lottery ticket, a hair clip, a drill bit, photographs, uncompleted to-do lists. We are left wondering: How did we ever manage without our very own cubby?
When we send our children off to school for the first time, we are given a list of practical things to provide for the cubby: a change of clothes, tissue, slippers, running shoes, a blanket (it’s not just newly adopted puppies that need a blanket smelling of home). The cubby becomes the child’s connection to home during a period of separation.
Around Grade 3 or 4, the cubby is replaced by the far more grown-up hook and knapsack. The nifty compartments are custom-made for personal belongings: water bottles, pencil cases, lunch box, and whatever toy is all the rage. Where the cubby promotes a sense of both maternal protection and independence for the child, the knapsack is something that is their very own, and it travels with them – with some difficulty at first, given that the knapsack and child are roughly the same size. It is an extension of who they are, and the knapsack, in varying forms, stays with us throughout life.
But nothing can compare to the locker.
It is the cubby, only taller, stronger, louder and, private. What is hidden there — a winter coat, loose papers that never found their way into a binder, old lunches, dirty gym clothes, body spray – is protected from the adult world by a steel door and a secret code. The locker is the adolescent’s introduction to personal property and the power of independent ownership.
Filmmakers have capitalised on the locker’s power in teen flicks with predicable (and mostly inaccurate) motifs: boy gets tossed into locker by football player; girl gets ridiculed by cheerleaders, principal walks by and notices nothing. Awkward crushes, embarrassing moments, gossip, first kisses, break-ups, and make-ups all take place at the locker door.
In reality, the locker is a place of familiarity and comfort. As the grown-up cubby, it is the conduit to socializing and connecting with others and as such, it also carries a subtle social hierarchy or identity. In certain areas of the school, lockers are coveted and claimed by those on top of the high school pecking order, some by virtue of just being in Grade 12. Other areas are reserved for teams and clubs. It was easy to spot the football team’s lockers. Helmet didn’t fit inside, so lockers would be transformed into a line-up of impenetrable figures in position and awaiting a tackle.
Students have been robbed of so many aspects of what high school ought to be for the past two years, and the untouchable locker deprived them of rite-of-passage experiences.
With locker doors open, school is now their space again. Teenaged chatter, a little laughter, and lots of rattling fill the once-silent hallways. Students now have their familiar meeting place, and a personal cubby to stow away forgotten lunches, loose paper, and dirty gym clothes. It’s their very own place to socialize, build memories, avert their gaze when necessary, or simply take in the social dynamics around them.
For most, there isn’t a suitable locker substitute after high school.
There are things that we may consider to be our very own piece of private property: a room, an office desk, a workstation, a car perhaps. But none double as a portal into the fascinating high school world of social connections and essential life experiences.
After high school we are left to cling to our knapsacks. They may finally be appropriately sized, but it’s small consolation. Locker envy never slams shut.
Principal at Malvern Collegiate, TDSB