Put That Thing Down

The new school year is starting, and parents have bought their children cell phones to bring to school because the world is scary and unpredictable. I get it. But as a substitute teacher, I spend so much time bringing my students back to the classroom from wherever it is they would rather be. Our district has a very clear policy, but kids are kids, and the allure of a little box that can reunite you with your boyfriend, let you play a game, or keep you from missing your favorite show is strong.

It’s not just students. I’ve seen clergy take out their cell phones to take pictures during a service or check a message while talking to someone, a busy doctor texts as he explains diagnoses, young babies are handed the shiny devices when their parents want a patch of quiet, and even in choirs when it’s not their time to sing singers who in another time would be chided for whispering text, instead.

The problem is this: when you are there, you are not here. If a student has half an eye on the cell phone (“Miss, I have to take this call, it’s my mother,” I’ve been told more than once), that much of his brain is not engaged in the lesson. If you’re shopping for a prom dress or great sneakers, you’re not learning the vocabulary words you’re supposed to be looking up. It’s a small thing but a big thing — it drags down your grade and limits your understanding of the material. But more than that, it’s a message to the people around you that the people on the other end of the little box are more important, more interesting, and your relationship with them will be longer lasting. And that’s a serious problem.

Boredom, you see, is a catalyst for change. As a mother, I learned this. We moved to Texas from my native Boston, where I was one of six children, forty grandchildren, a small parish, and had two close-knit academic communities from my high school and college. Suddenly I didn’t know much of anyone. Then my kids started school.

I hate Hundred Day. But when you sit with other mothers putting one hundred stickers on crowns and making 100 shaped eyeglass frames from oaktag folders, you talk and you bond. You get to know your fellow volunteers for Math and Reading Centers as you play bingo with the kids and help with the plant sale and play. You stand with the other parents and guardians in the predawn hours loading buses for band trips and waiting for the students to come home again, hungry. Both the high schools in our town have Post Prom, and at my kids’ school, I joke that it’s occupational therapy for the over-committed. The band moms and the drama mamas and the parents of athletes and the moms of the SPED kids (and some of these are all one person) all paint and glue things, decorate, and solve the town’s problems. Improvements are suggested, the administrators who hang out with us gain new insight, and we go home covered with glitter but knowing more people and feeling better connected to the town.

I think part of the allure of summer camp is the limited exposure to screens and the greater exposure to the outdoors and new friends. When everyone is far from home and in a strange place, there is an opportunity for growth and kindness. Little things like walking a friend to the latrine in the dark or cowering together in a storm become bonding moments that people talk about in wedding toasts fifteen years down the line.

Life is especially hard for students who transfer. I know my first year of college, all of us talked about what various of our high school friends would have said about each new thing we saw. And then, we tapered off. We started identifying with the people around us, and they became the friends that we thought of and quoted in our new lives and jobs.

But, if you always have the people you are comfortable with literally in the palm of your hand, how are you ever going to feel the need to open your life to someone new? Part of it is learning about other people. Part of it is discovering that you have something to offer — the answer to a question, a color for an art project, a spin on the book you are reading. You don’t always know what’s inside you until it has a chance to come out.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, in “Hamilton,” has various characters sing, “Look around! How great it is to be alive right now!” And this is true of high school. Not everything about it is wonderful, but the people who stand up for you during the bad times there are the ones you call later: when you meet the right person, when you are in labor, when your cat is sick, when your father dies. And when your friends go through these things, you will be the person whose voice they will want to hear. Yes, in some ways they become the new faces in the box in your hand. But your back bench of friends will be so much stronger and richer for spending time doing things you have to do graciously with people who are not like you.

I am not condemning cell phones. The world without cell phones could be dangerous, and keeping in touch was expensive. In an emergency, you’d have to find a pay phone, and you’d have to have money for it. To stay in touch with family when we moved to Texas, we were charged ten cents per minute to call out of State and twenty-five cents per minute to talk across Texas. Cell phones can be good, useful, bring people together. They allow me to see my granddaughter in Virginia, show the people at Home Depot the part that I need, and text the exact address of the place that I’m seeking. That said, please, don’t let the little box take you from the moment. Be where you are, with the people around you. You can’t know what it is you will learn from and offer them if you don’t make eye contact and talk.

 

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