Phones, Part 1: Silent Students and Solitary Socialization

A couple of weeks ago, I ended my last period class about six minutes early.  I don't remember why I ended class early that day, but I remember it was sunny and bright in that classroom when I relinquished those few minutes right before the end of the school day.  As host to thirty seniors, I prepared for the deluge of sound, the voices I thought would fill the room.  There were prom dates and prom houses to sort out. College applications were in full swing, and some acceptance letters had begun to trickle in.  Athletes were preparing for games, and aspiring actors for the play.  There were parties to plan, relationships that had formed or ended that week, outfits to analyze, television shows to talk about.  After a full day of classes I was sure everyone was dying to kick back and talk.

What I got was silence.

I am not implying that they all whispered to each other with reserve, trying to keep their thoughts from drifting over to my desk and my ears.  I am not talking about polite conversation respectful of their neighbors' desires to hear themselves think.  I am talking about funereal silence.  Dead silence.  Pin-drop silence.

Almost immediately, the phones came out.  Soundlessly, and in total isolation, nearly everyone thumbed their way around screens while the seconds and then minutes ticked by.  I figured it must just be a common reaction of a smartphone generation: free time meant a quick check into Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Vine, before looking up and talking with friends and classmates about all the amazing things bouncing around inside of them, eighteen years old with the wide world waiting.  The remainder of the period went by and, with thirty high school seniors in a room, I don't think anyone uttered a single word. 

So finally, with about a minute left, I asked them.  I asked what they were looking at, why they were looking at it.  I got a list of the apps I expected but virtually no reasons explaining why they turned to phones rather than the person in the seat next to them.  "Did you find out anything important from any of it?"  No, they all agreed.  "Do you enjoy it?"  Not really, most of them conceded.

The paradox of anti-social social-networking. 

A lot of senior English is based on discussion, yet time and again our conversations have faltered and fizzled out.  I tried giving points for participation, calling on quiet students, pleading with them, sometimes forcing them to talk.  My students' hesitance to speak was a puzzle I could not solve. 

Then on our recent mid-year evaluation I asked a question about their involvement in class discussions.  To my surprise many of them spoke of apprehension and anxiety.  So many who remain quiet in class expressed a fear of being wrong, of failing to express their thoughts correctly, of being intimidated by speaking in front of other people.  "I am just really shy," they wrote.  "I am just not comfortable speaking in front of others."  There was a resignation in these responses that worried me, an acceptance that they are just not people who speak up.  I have a theory of why that might be. 

We are out of practice speaking to and with others. In line at the food store the other day I took a look around, and what I saw was weird isolation and silence just like my classroom that day.  Nearly everyone waiting in line was looking at or talking on a phone.  Even in situations when people do talk with each other - restaurants and family dinner tables, airplanes, locker rooms - people are more and more frequently dividing their attention.   We text between statements, read emails while nodding along to other peoples' stories.  We turn to our phones to fill every silence.

We are sacrificing a great deal in exchange for our voyeuristic forays into Facebook, and careful tracking of Kanye West's most recent tweets.  Simple conversation may be the greatest cost, the process of looking at people, speaking with them, and seeing in their faces acknowledgement of a shared experience.  Short, seemingly unimportant conversations are where we build the foundation of human interaction. 

When we put our phones away we open ourselves to eye contact and a quick hello from strangers which leads to conversations about the weather or the Phillies or something just as trivial.  The content of the conversations is not important, but the connection is.  There is a basic kinship with those around us.  These quick chance encounters reinforce how much we all have in common, build a sense of community, encourage a concern for the rest of society.  Last week, picking up pizza in a snow storm, I talked with two other guys about the seemingly permanent winter.  We laughed together and shook our heads together.  We acknowledged each other with eye-contact and attention.  "Take care," one guy said as he walked back out into the world.  There is meaning in that.

I teach kids on the verge of adulthood, and inside of them there are untold depths of emotion, belief, insight, and aspiration.  But, I am afraid they are losing the ability to express what roams around inside them in any way other than texts and tweets.  I worry that they have spent so much time looking at phones, and so little time engaged in informal conversation that they have lost a necessary skill or at least gotten really rusty.  Like tigers in a zoo, their thoughts pace back and forth inside the cage so accustomed to imprisonment that they no longer yearn for escape, happy now with a more limited life.

So.  I reject the claims that attempt to explain away their silence.  I don't care that speaking makes them uncomfortable.  I don't care that they blush when they speak, or stutter, or that their thoughts come out in a muddled mess when they voice them.  I don't care that many aspire to enter a field of study or a career path that they think does not require speaking in front of others.  What I care about is what they have to say, and the absolute obligation to say it. 

I want my students to speak in front of others in their daily lives of classrooms and practice fields, dances and dinner tables.  I want them to look people in the eye and voice what they think, because conversation can expand horizons.  I want kids to vocally support those they believe are doing the right thing, and openly oppose those doing wrong.  I want them to say hello to strangers simply because they are people.  Bonds are formed through friendly greetings, discussions, and debates.  People are defined by what they have to say and when they choose to say it. 

This is a war, and we must all become foot soldiers.  We must all show kids growing up in this brave new world the importance of simple face-to-face conversation. We all need to lift our eyes from our phones and examine the world around us, engage others in our communal effort to make sense of this world.  Demonstrate the power of a voice by standing up to a racist or homophobic joke, saying with force and eloquence why it is not funny.  Empower our kids to vocalize what their limits are when someone tries to push them into uncomfortable situations.  Share the stories of moments you felt joy or sadness, and see in the eyes of others that they have felt that way too. See how similar we all are.  Connect, instead of just being connected.

Spring is coming, and some day soon with a warm breeze blowing in through our classroom windows I am going to give those seniors a few minutes.  Those minutes will be both a gift and a challenge, a break and an exercise in humanity.  I hope they take it.  I hope they fight the compulsion to pull out a phone and instead look someone in the eyes.  I hope they talk about prom, their excitement and apprehension at leaving this place at the end of the year, their dreams and aspirations.  Or just about the weather. 

I hope their voices fight each other to be heard.  I hope the sound is deafening and drowns out the silence.  I hope it spills out the window and into the spring air sending notice to the world that they are here, they have something to say, and they will be heard. 



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