I do not know how long I carried around that old burnt-orange gym bag. I know I chose this style decades ago while shopping at the old Value City store in Benwood, WV, where there now sits a Kia dealership. Back when it was brand-spanking new, the gym bag's burnt-orange waterproof canvas possessed a warm glow and its black plastic bottom was hard and solid, providing a sturdy foundation for all the crap I carried in it. This gym bag once maintained some semblance of form even when it was not overstuffed with odorous Nike cross-training shoes, sweaty reversible shorts, stinking shirts, socks, and drawers, as well as those moldy towels.
I recently noticed that my burnt-orange gym bag had slowly started to fall apart. The canvas has faded, the color devolving into a patchwork of limited original color interspersed throughout lighter faded spots, water stains, and dark scuff marks. The hard plastic bottom has cracked on all of the corners while the firm bottom matting has grown irreconcilably softened, unable to confidently bear the weight of all that I carry with me. This gym bag has served me for so long: gym trips, work days at school, vacations to the beach, trips between North Carolina and West Virginia. This gym bag traveled with me to more places, carried stuff I needed and stuff that was useless, and now mirrored the malaise and indifference that had begun to permeate my life.
As much as I loved, still embraced, and comfortably carried my old burnt-orange gym bag, I knew it was time for change.
I traversed across the Ohio Valley, stopping in every store I thought would have gym bags on their shelves; I searched online at Amazon Prime for a new bag that could be sent to me in two shipping days. Nothing matched my vision for the future, the new directions I wanted to take. Nothing matched until I went to T.J. Maxx at The Highlands. Honestly I had given up hope until there it sat, the burgundy red gym bag with black and dark gray trim. Damn! Those side pockets were huge, adorned with shiny new zippers with hard plastic pulleys on each end. The top flap unzipped to reveal a spacious interior, one which had a sturdy matting which reminded me of my old bag when it was once new. This was it. This was the new gym bag to carry all of my stuff, to take me places I wanted to travel in the future, to transform me into someone who desperately wanted to move into the next stage of his life.
Monday night I packed the new burgundy red bag with my school clothes for the next day. I stuffed my shoes with a belt and socks, I neatly folded my trusty khakis, dress shirt, and tie, and, finally, I filled my travel bag with deodorant, shaving necessities, and a toothbrush. I carried my burgundy bag down to my Explorer where it waited for me until the next morning when I began my early morning workouts, exercise that I could not accomplish when I wanted to go with my burnt-orange bag after school. Despite a restless night's sleep in anticipation of the upcoming day, I had a bounce in my step the next morning.
I left the Wellness Center that morning, put my gym bag in the back seat, then headed off to school through the rainy morning. As I began ascending the stairs to my third floor classroom, my wet plastic lunch bag slipped through my hand, scattering pieces of the stoneware container, rice, chicken, and veggies across the tiled floor. I had to laugh at this. I shrugged it off, cleaned up my mess, taught my classes, ate a couple granola bars and surviving tangelos for lunch, straightened up my room, then headed home for the day. I carried that burgundy red gym bag upstairs to my bedroom where I took out the damp clothes then repacked it with my work clothes for the next day.
I continued the week repeating the same ritual with my burgundy red bag, finding a rhythm, doing my best to ignore the rascally gremlins as they appeared throughout the day: the students who had extra "sass" in their voices, the random events that trashed my daily schedule, my crazy coworkers (you know who you are 😏). I wanted to focus on some positive aspects of my life: the enthusiasm of the largest senior class I have taught since returning to Central, the colleagues who were excited about doing something new in their classrooms (you know who you are 😏), and my renewed energy. I stayed a little longer every day, reading some good essays, coming up with some new rewards on Classcraft, and listening to Stevie Nicks as I enjoyed being in the moment.
On Friday afternoon I threw my burgundy red bag in the Explorer and sped to Morgantown where I spent the evening with my North Carolina friend Kathy and her husband Kelly while we watched their daughter Emma Jane shut out the Mountaineer soccer team as goalie for the Duke Blue Devils. Kathy captured pictures of me posing as a childlike fan with the Duke team as the three of us greeted the players after the game. I even picked up some promised autographs and well-wishes for the soccer players in my classes. Everyone seemed surprised that I made this trip. "Go! That sounds like fun!" I think they knew it was a trip I needed. It was more special than I ever realized it could have been. Kathy and I, the consummate English teachers, talked about how this was so surreal for both of us. That is what we English teachers do even in our spare time, even when we have not seen each other in a year, even when we live five hundred miles apart—we discuss the underlying meaning of everything.
Back in the day I was content coming home to quietly relax after a hectic week. In the future I will more than likely do that again and be perfectly fine with that choice. Back then I had a burnt-orange bag that suited me fine for where I was at the time, where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be. I am not tossing out the old bag. I will put some "stuff" in there, some sweatshirts I no longer wear, some dog blankets I may not need for a while, some pictures I can keep in my memory for the time being. Now, my burgundy red bag is ready to travel with me to new places, to experience more moments, to live life differently than I had. With any luck this new gym bag will be as durable as the previous, lasting long enough until I realize I need a new, maybe even better, one.