A student started eating lunch in my classroom. Nothing new, -- kids often came to my room for lunch. Sometimes they gathered to visit with friends, others to work on their newspaper or yearbook pages. Some just wanted a quiet place to work on homework. This was different. She came in by herself, sat down and started eating. This particular freshman, a student of mine, didn’t say anything as she walked in – also unusual. Kids who came by themselves usually sat and visited with me. For the first two days, out of respect, I didn’t bother her.
On the third day, I decided to check in with her to make sure she was safe and not having a rough time with other kids. Sometimes kids just show up because they need an adult and don’t know how to start the conversation. They count on us to do that for them.
“So how are things?” I queried.
After a few minutes of conversation, she told me she was eating in my room because her parents had grounded her from her cell phone for a week.
Okay…Having spent a quarter of a century working with teenagers, I knew there was an angle I couldn’t see as an adult. Sometimes you just have to be blunt.
“Oh. That’s too bad. So what does that have to do with where you eat?”
It turns out the friends she ate with had gone to lunch together and she didn’t know where they were. She didn’t know where they were because she didn’t have her phone. She wasn’t in the group text.
I ate lunch at “the table” with my ninth grade friends. We always sat at the same table, always the same cafeteria. We always knew where we would be. We sent a personal message to each other if we were going to be somewhere else such as a club meeting or intramural lunch activity. We planned. We counted on routine. We talked to each other when we made changes to the routine. We didn’t need no stinkin’ cell phone to meet up with our friends, but if they had been around, I’m sure we would have all had them - maybe. Life was different. And in 20 years it will be even more different.
Phones really have changed how adults connect with teenagers. In the mid ‘60’s, my family phone was connected to a party line, a phone line shared by several homes. Sometimes I picked up the phone and other people would be talking on the line. There were laws posted in the phone book. You had to give up the line for an emergency and you couldn’t fake an emergency to give up the line. Later we had our own phone line, but if a friend wanted to call me, they had to first talk to whoever answered the phone. If they called during dinner (or if I called them during dinner) a parent would usually answer, “We’re eating dinner. You need to call later.”
If I used the downstairs extension, I knew someone could listen to my conversations. My family was pretty respectful, but it was always a possibility. Sneaking out of the house even took planning. (Not that I ever did that…but I know a sibling that did.) Calling ahead would wake the house up. Today, teenagers don’t necessarily have to communicate with parents to take calls, plan meetings, arrange rides or midnight rendezvous. Teens with their own cell phones can call and check in from anywhere.
I can attest that most kids I worked with were responsible. They answered parent calls and texts immediately. We had a reception problem in the yearbook room and kids sometimes called home to check in from the classroom phone, confusing parents. ”Whose phone is this? Why didn’t you answer my call?”
One of my students told her parents she was staying after school for yearbook everyday. When parents called to check on her, she answered the phone and assured them it wouldn’t be much longer. This created some questions when she had a low grade on her report card.
“But she has been staying afterschool everyday working with you,” said the parent.
No, she had not been with me every day. Because her parents communicated with her via cell phone, she could tell her parents she was anywhere. She got away with it for two months. After that incident I advised all my newspaper and yearbook parents to call my classroom after school if they had doubts.
Actually, they should call anyway, because the reception is bad and, you know,--even good kids make bad choices now and then.
Gretchen Wehmhoff is a retired high school teacher in Alaska and a co-conspirator with Alaska Family Fun.