Oversize textbooks, rolling backpacks, sub-zero mountaineering parkas: The gear required to equip today's student is getting bigger. But the school locker, that shrine to adolescent personal space, is not.
A typical school locker is one foot wide, one foot deep and six feet high. The dimensions are meant to balance the needs of students -- who desire sufficient space for their books, jackets and Justin Timberlake collages -- and the concerns of school officials, who don't want lockers so large as to hold an entire wardrobe or an entire student.
In Montgomery County, the current crop of middle-school students count locker space among their top grievances -- on a par with bullies, bland cafeteria food and the scarcity of paper towels in boys' restrooms. They say there just isn't enough room.
Dennis Creegan, 12, a seventh-grader at Baker Middle School in Damascus, took the issue to the Board of Education in December, when the board met with student leaders: "So is there any way the board could, like, confront this issue?"
Lockers aren't getting smaller. Lockers are one of the few things that haven't changed much in the daily rounds of students. But bulky textbooks have spawned bulky backpacks, some of which, in turn, have taken the next evolutionary step and grown wheels.
Crowd-control issues have led principals to restrict the times students may go to their lockers and to shorten periods between classes; some students at sprawling high schools have stopped using lockers altogether because of that. Similar crowding concerns have led administrators to ban backpacks in classrooms and common areas; a 40-pound pack on the back of a 70-pound middle-schooler creates something administrators call the "turtle effect," causing collisions and the occasional fight. Rolling backpacks, road hogs of the halls, are particularly unwelcome.
All this makes kids more dependent on the locker as a place to unload.
"In my locker right now, I have a one-inch binder, two two-inch binders, three folders, two workbooks, three textbooks, five reading books, a calculator, a backpack and a jacket," said Zach Kram, 12, a seventh-grader at Rosa Parks Middle School in Olney. "Lockers are too small."
Never is the inadequacy of locker space more evident than in the depth of winter. Many students say that once they hang up a coat, the locker will hold little else.
Zoe Bulitt, an eighth-grader at Rosa Parks, said she "can't even bring my winter jacket, or my locker will probably get jammed." So she often leaves it at home, to the distress of her mother.
But there are exceptions. At Herbert Hoover Middle School in Rockville, built in 1966, the original lockers are a mere nine inches wide and less than five feet high. (Newer lockers, including those in Montgomery, are the standard 12 by 12 by 72.) Many seventh-graders at Baker Middle School make do with lockers half the normal 72-inch height. Of the 1,000 lockers at Rosa Parks, 140 highly coveted "Big Blues," named for their color, are full-size.
Chris Cymerman, a sixth-grader at Rosa Parks, does not have a Big Blue. He said of the smaller lockers, "They jam all the time, and they can't fit all my stuff, and I have to kick it to close it half the time."
Nationwide, school lockers range from one to two feet wide and deep and five to six feet high, said Scott Howard, a sales manager with locker seller Cisco-Eagle Inc. in Dallas.
"There are four, five major locker manufacturers in the country, and they've all been making them for a million years, and they really haven't changed," he said.
Dimensions are ultimately dictated by space. There's not enough hallway in the typical school to fit 1,000 lockers wider than about a foot apiece, Song said.
Locker dimensions vary in the region. Prince George's County uses a variety of sizes. In Loudoun County, lockers are a foot shorter than those in Montgomery. Schools in Fairfax and Arlington counties are moving from taller, thinner lockers to shorter, fatter ones that can hold larger book bags and puffier coats. In Fairfax, new lockers are 15 inches wide and 36 inches high; in Arlington, new lockers are 15 inches wide and 30 inches high.
"We have found that width seems to be more desirable than height," said Paul Regnier, a Fairfax schools spokesman.
Henry David Thoreau Middle School in Vienna, built in 1960, has narrow lockers built to the old standard. Students with neighboring lockers learn to take turns in opening them.
"They're kind of old and small," said Courtney Vereide, 12, a seventh-grader. But classmates "don't talk about them much," she said, "except when they get jammed."
Whatever the shortcomings of lockers, principals also fault the tenants. Middle school students, they say, are especially prone to treat a locker much as a Southern Californian would a car: as a second home.
"We've found leather jackets, brand-new tennis shoes, Christmas presents in June, crusty brownie pans, fuzzy, moldy lunches, you name it," said Carole Goodman, a longtime middle school administrator who is now principal of Blake High School in Silver Spring. "To me, it's a management issue."
William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University, blames textbooks. He is an expert on the size and weight of American school texts. "Worldwide, we have the biggest textbooks that exist in mathematics and science," he said. Middle school books often top 700 pages, he said, because publishers attempt to include all the material taught in several of the largest states.
"We are so far off the scale, in terms of what we expect our kids to lug around."