When people are concerned about having to do something they haven’t done for a while, oftentimes friends and family members boost their morale by saying, “It’s just like riding a bike! It’ll all come back to you.”
The idea here being, of course, that no matter how long it’s been since you hopped on your bike to peddle down to the community pool, bike riding is so ingrained in your psyche, you’ll never forget how to do it.
Now, I’ve never been a stellar bike rider to begin with. I actually avoid it because I find it too hard to peddle uphill and too complicated to brake at a red light, jump off the seat, hold the bike awkwardly between my knees, and jump on again when the light sparkles emerald once more.
In any event, I’m a bigger believe in the “use it or lose it” syndrome.
I’ve been listening to “Eat, Pray, Love” on the way to work each day, and Gilbert’s love affair with the Italian language is making me long for Spanish class. After taking four semesters of Spanish in high school and two in college, I can barely get past “Hola, como estas?” these days. Sad but true.
I did want to continue with Espanol while in college; there was just one tiny roadblock. All the classes on the registrar’s website past the intermediate level included hundreds of pages of history and fiction reading, lengthy papers and a lot of analyzing Don Quixote. Since I was already majoring in English, I just couldn’t justify spending that many hours with my Spanish-English dictionary trying to make sense of idiomatic expressions or what was going on in Frida Kahlo’s mind. All I really wanted to do was speak the language, after all.
So I tell myself that one day, when I’m fully “grown up,” I’ll go to language immersion classes. The kind where you split up into pairs and create skits and repeat after the crazy lady penetrating your brain via headset. The kind you find a neon flyer advertisement for at the grocery store, the kind that can only be accessed by a downward sloping stairway under a big awning on a city street.
I imagine I’ll go to such a class after I’ve married well and sent my kids off on the great yellow cheese wagon known as the school bus. I mean, I can’t freelance all day, every day, right? And how much time does house cleaning, cooking dinner and doing the laundry really take? Ah, who am I kidding! I’ll have a maid! And a cook! Or better yet, my husband will cook. Some men do that, don’t they?
Maybe I’ll just cross that bridge when I come to it. But the bottom line is I’m annoyed I lost my Spanish skills. Not to mention my piano, golf, tennis, math and literary analysis skills in no time flat. This might be a slight exaggeration, but I feel like all my newfound journalism knowledge is pushing out the other things I’ve mastered, which now grow dusty and are rusting over in a small brain cavity somewhere behind my left ear.
And I doubt taking the GRE will be “just like riding a bike.” I doubt it’ll be as intuitive as taking the SAT was while I was physically still in high school. Maybe that’s because there wasn’t much that was actually intuitive about the SAT, even with the humongous study guide and weekend prep class. But I went to an elite liberal arts institution and earned a high GPA, so I’ll be fine, right? Right?
Don’t all jump in at once with your gushing praise for my brilliant mind and competent algebra skills!
Crickets . . . perfect.
Guess it’s time to bite the bullet and start studying this weekend.
It wasn’t until senior year in college that I had any idea what a “ring in the spring” even meant. The expression first came into my consciousness while working on a seminar paper that involved interviewing alumna who graduated from my college in the 1970s. The way they tell the story, catching sight of a diamond while studying with friends under the oak trees was a perfectly normal occurrence during their academic days.
I was amazed by how many of them wound up marrying guys they met at school or a few years later at alumni mixers. They made it sound so easy. “Oh, well, you know, he just brought me a soda at the first keg party of the year, and I thought that was so considerate.” Or, “We sat across the aisle from each other during Humanities and couldn’t stop watching each other.”
For my friends, finding a spark of mutual interest and later someone willing to commit enough to agree to be seen together in crowded places that didn’t involve flip flops sticking to beer-soaked frat floors was something to celebrate with champagne.
My own memories of fun-filled evenings spent dancing around with my best friends or indulging in late night heart-to-hearts with them when some guy crushed, as far as we could tell at the moment, the very fiber of our beings, flooded back to me recently when I read Susan Patton’s letter to the editor of The Daily Princetonian.
Her words, now infamous, were picked up by numerous mainstream media outlets, and she was–from what I could tell from my online research–mostly ridiculed and mocked by many women. They said her advice to college girls to find a husband while they were surrounded by many single, smart, promising young men was ridiculous. They said college was for receiving an education, not getting your MRS. degree. They said her thoughts had no place in the twenty-first century where the secretary of state and, for that matter, the president of Princeton, could just as easily be posts held by women as by men.
There was so much anger in these replies, and I’m still not completely sure why. Did these writers who took to The Huffington Post believe Patton was taking five giant steps backward for feminism? Did they think that couples never met at college? That marriage meant the end of all women’s careers? That no woman in her right mind dreamed of marrying her intellectual equal? That wanting to have children was a slap in the face to Gloria Steinem?
Most likely not. But I think there’s still a lot of backlash against women who say they desire the type of lifestyle women experienced for centuries: that of mother and wife. There also seems to be a growing skepticism about the idea of “work-life balance,” such that women who say they want to be mothers might as well be throwing their diplomas in the trash because they’ll never reach the pinnacle of their careers.
I think that’s pretty judgmental and not entirely true. I absolutely believe a woman can both work and raise her children successfully. But I think she needs a great partner whom she really clicks with in order to not feel utterly burnt out at the end of each business day. Not to discount single mothers who do an amazing job raising their kids alone! But if you’re going to be married and you want or need to work, wouldn’t you prefer to be committed to someone who supports you in your journey to excel at both tasks?
While I’m the last person to say that all women need to stay home with their kids, doing so or wanting to do so should not be seen as a crime against women. Those who make the choice to stay home permanently deserve just as much respect and help in raising the next generation as working moms.
I’m more of the opinion that women react very strongly to others who’ll say things they don’t want to admit about themselves. Certainly that doesn’t apply to everyone, but what Patton wrote was, logistically at least, accurate in my opinion. Where else will we be around so many young, available, smart, creative, equals of the opposite sex than at college? Well, there’s always grad school, but I digress.
In any event, I see my college-educated friends who don’t want to drive more than a half hour on the highway unless their boyfriends come along for the ride. I see the ones getting married at 22 and 23 and 24. I’ve seen the ones who forsake their friends for the chance to shine, however briefly, as the center of some man’s universe. The ones who’d give up not only their families, but their country, language and culture in pursuit of love because hey, you’re only young once, right?
I don’t blame any of them, and I try to make an active effort to support them in their journeys. I know I don’t always succeed, sometimes because I think they can do better and sometimes because I wish I was doing as well as they were.
I think Patton meant that today’s women are strong and capable and ready to charge ahead toward careers of their choosing. Yet I think she was suggesting there will be other things that become significant in the life of a woman beside work that we should all give the occasional thought to while we’re young in case we choose to shoot for those goals.
I think she was trying to whisper a quiet warning in the ears of those who seek the long walk down the aisle in the Cinderella gown.”Don’t wait too long…don’t pretend it doesn’t matter if you really want it.” Human relationships do matter, and forming healthy families certainly matters. It might as well be discussed in college–seemingly everything else is. And let’s not kid ourselves by saying the class of 2013 will fly in the face of convention by choosing to wed their cubicles.
Your briefcase will not share a joke with you at the end of the day, and your laptop doesn’t care when you don’t feel well.
There’s no shame in wanting to be married, and there’s no shame in never marrying at all. There is, however, in my opinion, a basic, human desire to find a worthwhile mate. Maybe even, as Charlotte York says in Sex and the City, to “mate for life.”
I think most people want to find someone who loves and understands them. And I don’t think that you should pass up that opportunity even if it happens to come your way in college. You might be a little young, and you’ll definitely still be trying to find yourself. But I for one don’t want to find myself lonely and bitter and taking cheap shots at young brides ten years from now. And all because I didn’t feel comfortable enough to admit I wanted to find a good husband just as much as I want to reach a fulfilling writing career and nurture strong relationships with my closest friends.
I’d be lying if I said anything else.
I’m not sure when it happened, but lately, a lot of the people I communicate with treat me like I’m their personal therapist. The only catch is I’m not making the big bucks, sitting on a plush couch, drinking mocha lattes, and scribbling notes into a yellow legal pad about how often they speak in the past versus the present tense.
Sometimes, after I’ve languished on my bed for a while and tried to offer up both sympathy and useful advice, just as I’m about to open my mouth to say something about my life, they’re ready to hang up!
And I’m not only talking about a select few. It’s becoming more-than-most of my twenty-something buddies.
I spend a good three to five hours on any given weekend fielding phone calls from friends looking for love in all the wrong (and right) places, the ones who know they really should fill out those grad school applications, the ones wondering if their careers are taking them in a viable direction and those who still can’t stand their parents.
I’m starting to think that when all your friends are in the same capsizing boat as you are—as in they’re the same age and also trying to find themselves and meet the minimum payments on their credit card– no one can fling the orange life vest out far enough to save you. They’re too wrapped up in all the same problems you have, so they don’t see them with the insight it takes to get beyond issues.
Now, while I’m flattered to be considered level-headed, diplomatic, empathetic, and a good advice-giver, HELLO! I need to talk about ME sometimes too.
So, for all of you out there who feel like you need someone to pour out your soul to, for all of you who feel exhausted, not to mention resentful, of always being considered the strong, stable type who absorbs others’ problems like a good sponge, I hear you. And I empathize.
The sad part is that when I turn to the thirty, forty- and fifty-something women in my life who have been-there-done-that and could offer up solid words along the lines of, “You¹re kind, you¹re beautiful, and you’re talented, so take a deep breath! Everything is going to work out!” they often come up a little, well, short.
They listen better than their younger counterparts, but I’m amazed at how encouraging they’re not. It takes a lot for me to be emotionally vulnerable, and I don’t enjoy doing it unless I feel safe and comfortable. So when I say applying to J school freaks me out because I feel like the odds aren’t in my favor or that I don’t want to attend a wedding alone when my high school BFFs will be there coupled off, that’s your cue to say something reassuring.
(In case you were raised by wolves and don’t know this).
Yet, when I confess, these women I’ve known and respected for years set their lips into a pursed-grimace thing and smile at me through these oh-you-poor-dear eyes.
Then they say things like, “Graduate school is a tough market. There’s stiff competition. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Or “Get used to feeling alone. Friends in relationships will leave you in a New York minute. They don’t want to hear about your yoga class! They want to chat about china patterns and how to hang curtains.”
Maybe that’s been their experience, and if it is, I’m sorry about it. I wish things had gone better for them. But why rain on my parade before it really even starts? Why drain my hope?
So here’s my advice to those of you, who like me, are feeling a little down now that the mega-blowout, glitter-ridden, Mojito-drinking birthday parties are no longer the norm and parties of one are no longer the exception.
Believe in yourself. Don’t depend on everyone else to do it for you. They’ll disappoint you eventually, guaranteed. It’s not that other people don’t care, but they’re human and living their own lives, which always takes precedent. One thing’s certain though: they’ll never know how you feel unless you tell them.
And here’s what you might want to mention to them (regarding themselves) and to yourself (regarding yourself): You are attractive, smart, capable, kind, fun to be around, and going places.
Everyone has inherent worth just because they are. Are what? Are in existence. Each unique individual on this planet is worthy because we are all another way universe is becoming conscious of itself.
And we deserve to be treated accordingly.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting some hard battle,” Plato once said.
Even if they seem privileged and blessed to your eyes, it doesn’t mean that your friends don’t face challenging struggles. You may not know the whole story—you might want to listen. To know all is to forgive all.
Plus, your kind words could be the catalyst to get them believing in themselves, so they in turn can take actions to benefit others. If you can’t handle lower-level insecurities, how are you going to deal with facing a life-threatening illness, divorce, or financial problem?
In short, why aren’t we giving each other more hope?
No, it’s not always easy to listen and be present, but if you don’t do it, you can be damn sure you won’t be invited to the blow-out, glitter-ridden, Mojito-drinking parties future friend parties. Why not? Because you won’t have earned your place at their table.
Our relationships could be a lot more fulfilling if we all tried to remember to treat other people like what they have to say is significant and valid. And if you can possibly spare it, please be encouraging.
Journalism provides a way to tell others’ stories and link people to their communities. It’s a good feeling to know that I’m helping raise awareness about a cause or that my words will live online even after I’m gone. Sometimes, when I write a piece that features just one person, I imagine that he or she will save the hard copy and show it to his or her children and grandchildren years from now.
Nevertheless, the creative part of me loves having a blog to write more freely. Sometimes I just get the urge to scribble down a poem that pops into my head. Although I find it hard to begin and even harder to follow through with, I’d really like to complete one novella at some point in the near future.
There’s something about the arts–whether its writing, painting, movies, singing or theatre–that cuts through to the heart of a matter. Translating the arts into an analytical perspective doesn’t work nearly as well as just trying to intuitively grasp them.
Although writing so many literary essays where you pick apart a work until you’re pretty sure you’re making it up as you go can make anyone feel like a crackpot psychologist. I guess I do miss that linear and literal writing as much as its creative counterpart.
So, in a tip of the hat to the literary community–the literati as I like to call them–I’m including two poems I wrote a few months ago into this post.
*** A Capitol July ***
A city in ruins
Stone wall rubble crumples into
Dust beneath the only feet
Left to walk down the abandoned
Streets, which once were paved
And shone like gold.
A sparrow arcs gracefully through
The sky beside a destroyed
Silver tower, looping off
Toward treetops on the horizon.
Far below, weather-beaten sneakers
Continue forward, ears waiting
For any sign of life.
A billboard ahead shows a young woman
With a too-bright, artificial smile
Fingers wrapped around a toothpaste tube.
Weeds push up through cracks in
Cement, a wooden swing creaks
In the breeze of a forlorn playpark and
The heat haze settles on vacant, overgrown
Lots on the outskirts of what was once an
Jungle-bright vines and wilting
Yellow flowers surrender to the
Dying sun and rising crescent
Moon. Night fall looms, and at last,
Beyond battered baker’s windows and the
Barber shop’s spinning chairs appears
The fence, straight ahead.
She finds the footholds in the
Tangled links, climbing higher,
Hoists over it onto the soft dirt
Path that winds into forest, natural noise, and
The last patch of daylight.
***Being and Becoming ***
Fifteen billion years ago
The universe exploded
A firework of color and sound
Raced itself to the edge of perception
For its pleasure of just because
We cannot be certain.
Like a toddler with sea legs
It reached and stretched
And grew–who knew–
Who could guess to what proportions?
The Earth became a speck
Of blue and green
Gliding through blackness in
Deep space, in no-thing-ness
Where all things are.
Like an elegant ice skater who
Twirls and cuts the ice with
Metal’s blade but cannot see
Her audience until the song’s
Last note fades
When dreamer and
Imagining know each other
For the first time.
House lights go up and
Absence with Presence collides.
And you and me and all we see
Are here, are now
Shared, multiplied, yet divided
By random strains
That plague our days
Of traffic and technology
Of what to eat and who to be,
Of gas prices and global war,
Thought-rich but in essence poor.
We try and fail and try again
To make it to that future
Moment where bliss
While folded laundry waits on steps
To be returned to closets
We jet off in steel rockets
Toward those other things
Between the no-things
Hoping to find buried treasure
In a wooden chest
On a red planet
Before the contractions start
And we are birthed again.
I can’t remember the last time I dressed up for Halloween. No, it’s not that I’m old, and I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve been apathetic to the holiday either. I always go into haunted houses even though they terrify me, I love crisp, fall evenings around a bonfire as much as the next girl, and after making it through four years of college, parties—and chocolate—have become necessities. So I’m not quite sure how the dressing up aspect evaded me for so long. Nevertheless, I think the last time I spent hours agonizing over my inch-long, fluorescent fake finger nails was middle school.
I know that in the past I’ve been a bedazzling witch missing two front teeth but sporting an awesome flappy skirt, Jasmine with a make-shift sapphire jewel headband rescued from an attic somewhere, a hippie with rainbow peace sign stickers stuck to my jeans, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz who trailed red glitter from her shoes all evening, and in my very cute baby days, a chubby pumpkin.
And now the moment has come for me to shine again. At my first official office Halloween party. Well, the winner does get a paid day off work, after all. Who wouldn’t dress up for that? I’ve decided to go as Katniss from The Hunger Games, complete with a hunting bow and Mockingjay pin.
But the whole dressing-up thing got me thinking about the history of Halloween and how little I know about it. I even found myself flipping through the TV channels the other night, landing on the original, yes-Jamie-Lee-Curtis-is-really-only-20-but-looks-like-a-school-marm version of Halloween and realizing that I’d never seen it!
How could this be?? Was I a bad American? Apparently so as the Library of Congress filed away the film in 2006 after they declared it was of enough socio-cultural importance to save for future generations’ viewing pleasure. It was time for a little research, and since that Halloween episode I caught on the History channel last year was fuzzy in my memory, I headed online.
It turns out Halloween as Americans currently celebrate it derived from the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain. This festival commemorating the end of the year took place on November 1 in what is today the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northern France.
As the biting winds rose and the leaves fell from the trees, Samhain was a signal that summer—and the harvest season—were over, and that the harsh winter was upon the Celts. They killed the weaker livestock that would not survive the season, and soon the celebration became associated with death and the belief that a wall which served as a thin separation between the living and the dead was torn open during this time, allowing spirits to circulate among the living. Many stories surround the tradition of Samhain, and nobody knows which ones are true. Some say the Celts left offerings of food and drink to appease the dead on that day, others claim that the Celts dressed up to scare ghosts away. Communal bonfires were most likely lit to honor Pagan gods with fortune tellers gathering around the flames to predict individual’s future paths. The Celts even captured bits of this “sacred fire” in hollowed out turnips, gourds, and rutabagas to carry back to their homes, and this tradition is said to have begun our modern carving and lighting of Jack-o-lanterns as pumpkins were more plentiful in the New World.
By the first century A.D., the Roman Empire had fought for, won, and begun to rule over most of the previously Celtic lands. Of course, they celebrated their own festivals in autumn around the same time as Samhain. One was Feralia, a day to honor the dead. The other was called Pomona for the Roman goddess of trees and fruit. Pomona’s symbol was the apple, which may have begun the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples. In any event, over the next several hundred years, Christianity spread through the Celtic population, but Samhain could not be eradicated. So in 835 Pope Gregory IV moved All Saints Day—a Catholic holiday to honor dead church saints and martyrs—to November 1 to take attention away from Samhain. Nevertheless, parades, bonfires, and costumes still materialized in England the night before All Saint’s Day, which was also called All Hallows Day, and these evening ramblings became known as All Hallow’s Eve, and later, Halloween.
Undeterred, the Catholic Church declared November 2 as All Soul’s Day to honor the dead who were not saints to try to stamp out Samhain for good. On All Soul’s Day, the poor of Europe would go “a-souling,” traveling door-to-door asking for food. In return, they promised to pray for the souls of their neighbor’s dead relatives. Church officials encouraged this practice and hoped it would replace the old Pagan tradition of leaving cake and wine out on the doorstep for dead spirits. Believers often dressed in saint and devil costumes during these evenings of roaming, and it is thought that when children adopted the practices of their parents, they threatened to start street fires or break the windows of those who refused to give them food. Before long, these youths might have begun dressing up to avoid being blamed for the mischief they caused rather than for religious reasons.
So from the Celtic world lit only by fire to the mass commercialization of a holiday now only out-grossed by Christmas, we have the condensed history of Halloween. The only question left is . . . trick or treat?
“The Beautiful Island” or in the indigenous, Mi’kmaq language, Abegweit for “the land cradled on the waves.” That’s how the locals refer to Prince Edward Island, Canada with its lush, rolling farmland and red sand shores. At first, I have to admit I was a little bit skeptical. There were moose crossing signs, locations that simply refused to show up on the GPS and a lack of consistent air conditioning in this foreign world. Not to mention the day I accidentally set off my resort’s smoke detector with my hot shower and raced into the hall, robe on and hair still foamy from shampoo to escape the nonexistent fire.
Yet one look at Dalvay by the Sea, the Victorian hotel located at the edge of a lake rimmed with spindly, coniferous trees and just a golf club shot away from the beach left me breathless. I knew that if Prince William and his new wife, Kate, had visited Dalvay for dragon boat racing when they toured the island last summer, then this must be the place to be. The scent of wood smoke, citrus and vanilla engulf you as you step into the lobby of the hotel and take in its wood paneling, large fireplace and reading room. The sticky date pudding with toffee sauce served at High Tea tastes rather like a delicious carrot cake brownie. And a handful of three-bedroom cabins hem in the lake shore where visitors can canoe or kayak to their heart’s content.
Right down the wide-open road (the lack of tailgaters is so refreshing) lies Stanhope Beach Resort where the ownership is the same, but the heated pool, yoga classes, massage services and complimentary continental breakfast offer a welcome change.
If you haven’t already guessed, P.E.I., located north of Maine and Nova Scotia in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is a place where life moves slowly and serenely. Many have only heard of it because it serves as the setting of L.M. Montgomery’s famous novel, Anne of Green Gables. The story tells of a feisty, red-haired orphan who is mistakenly delivered to the home of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert–they actually want a male farm hand to help the aging Matthew–in the fictional town of Avonlea. Although she is not what they originally had in mind, Anne’s contagious enthusiasm for life and deep love for the beautiful island landscape quickly endear her to the community. In fact, in Japanese classrooms, Anne’s hundred-year old story is still found on course curriculums.
It will not take long for visitors to P.E.I. to understand the appeal the place held for Montgomery as they take in the acres of corn and potato fields, dark woods, functioning light houses and almost-deserted beaches. Plus there is the quaint and compact city of Charlottetown, which feels like a seaside retreat right out of the Victorian Era with its pastel-colored homes, prominent arts community and easy access to boating. Nature-lovers will rejoice within the parameters of P.E.I.’s National Park, a stretch of forested land that runs along the length of the north shore beach and opens up a wide array of outdoor opportunities to sunbathe, bike, hike, fish and camp.
On P.E.I., the locals are friendly and easy to talk to about anything from the national health care plan to the French Acadian influence on island cuisine to The Hunger Games. You might, as I did, come across a church fundraising barbecue and decide that it is the perfect place to stop and partake in a hamburger for lunch. Local ceilidhs–gatherings where Irish or Scottish folk music is enjoyed and area musical talent is celebrated–are also famous on the island. The presence of larger-than-life white wind mills quickly alert you to P.E.I.’s commitment to sustainability while the bright yellow sunflower and purple iris fields can only be rivaled by a genuine English garden.
Of course, Anne aficionados will enjoy visiting Cavendish to see the old farmhouse that inspired Green Gables. Once there, many other options abound including touring Montgomery’s island home site and Anne of Green Gables Chocolates. The musical based on the novel is well worth the night out on the town. It has run uninterrupted in Charlottetown–while also making stops on Broadway and in London’s theatre district–for over 45 years. New for 2012 is the increase in intensive dance choreography that adds a modern twist to the old classic.
Charlottetown also boasts The Confederation Center for the Arts modern art museum right next to the theatre and St. Dunstan’s Basillica, a majestic church rebuilt in the early 1900s in the Gothic Revival style complete with towering pinnacles a few blocks away. On the western side of the island, history buffs in the crowd will learn a lot about the original French Acadians who settled the region until the British forced them out in a mass exodus in the 1700s at the Acadian Museum in Miscouche. Perhaps most interesting of all is the Bottle House exhibit nestled into the seashore just fifteen minutes from the Acadian Museum in Cap-Egmont. People flock there to see the three impressive structures–a chapel, bar and tiny house–that Edouard Arsenault constructed out of roughly 25,000 glass drinking bottles which beautifully sparkle in the sunlight.
Those who frequent seafood restaurants will recall seeing “P.E.I. mussels” on the menu at times, and the island certainly has its fair share of upscale dining where you can delight in goat cheese salads, scallops, salmon, lobster, mussels and the like. There are also plenty of ramshackle seafood shops near the water where families feast on baskets of fish and chips.
Perhaps what you really notice most on the island though is the peaceful quiet that blankets it. You feel far removed from the digital world of iPhones or the constant crush of highway traffic. It’s almost like going back in time to a state of being where watching the slow progress of a seagull as it shuffles along the shoreline is perfectly all right.
My high school is a formidable fortress of red brick with a navy blue, metal roof in my memory. It is a place surrounded by quiet woods that eagles circle over. The dark, tinted windows encasing the school’s stairwells glisten from the outside and leave your car’s reflection rippling as it approaches the security gate where visitors must state their official business before entering.
I remember strict dress codes where girls were not able to show even the seductive hint of their shoulders. It was a world of humorous note passing to alleviate math class boredom, watching VHS tapes of mitosis during Biology, learning about Microsoft Excel during Computer Applications and dancing along to Ciara’s “1, 2 Step” at birthday parties. When a boy in my senior psychology class brought his brand new iPod with him to class one afternoon, he was the epitome of modernity. I graduated in 2007.
Although it has not been that long in “real time,” the world of mobile technology has rocketed ahead in five short years, leaving many in the education business stumbling to keep up. When I returned to my alma mater just two months ago to chat with high school juniors about the college search process, I was amazed at what greeted me in the halls and classrooms. Everyone had a smart phone where I had made it through four years of college without one. They were constantly texting and even playing music in the middle of their teachers’ opening addresses. I saw a kid composing music on an iPad outside of the chorus room and had to stop and do a double take.
While I realize that my old high school is better off than most and that many within it can afford expensive gadgets, that is beside the point. Yes, I understand the world has advanced technologically, and that’s great. There is much to be said about the benefits smart phones and the like bring to our daily lives, from instant access to email to the ability to read up-to-the-minute news. But this isn’t an issue of accessibility as much as it is one of respect–for one’s education and one’s educators.
The teachers in my memory rarely allowed our attention to waver from what they were saying. In fact, they readily confiscated cell phones and ripped ear buds from eardrums. Yet after spending a day roaming the halls, I had the distinct feeling that things had changed.
“The kids are supposed to only use [cell phones] in the halls or at lunch. I have noticed that half the time it’s the parents that are calling the kids in the middle of class for something ridiculous. I don’t approve of texting in class, but now it’s so prevalent that unless it’s all the time instead of work, I just about have to give up. What happened to not allowing them in the building at all?” complains one Spanish teacher.
Although her students are allowed to listen to music while doing independent work, she believes social media use is out of control and vividly recalls a day she chose to start an ill-fated conversation with a student about it. “Right before class started this girl was taking a picture, so I said, ‘Are you going to put that up on Facebook right now?’ And she says, horrified, ‘Oh no! Nobody uses Facebook anymore. We all tweet.’”
Of course, there is some irony in the fact that I got in touch with instructors to ask them about this issue via Facebook and that they all responded fairly rapidly. I was amused–and must admit somewhat gleeful–when our group Facebook message led to some teachers educating others about the ways in which they are combating the rise of disruptive cell phones in the classroom. “Cell phone use has no purpose in the classroom. I, along with several other teachers on my hall, will be requiring students to place their cell phones in a holder within my classroom next year. If the phone is away from them, they cannot use it. My fear with the phones is using them to cheat on assignments or the increase of teacher sabotage by recording the teacher and using it [against him or her] out of context” explains a social studies teacher.
A history teacher chimed in to say, “Before the iPhone came out, kids could text without looking at their phones. They had the digits’ locations memorized. I knew they were texting but couldn’t take the phones away because I couldn’t see them. Today, girls either leave their purses–the BIG bag is en vogue–on their desk at an angle, so the teacher can’t see the phone or cross their legs and place the phone in their lap and pretend to haphazardly look down at the floor.”
She admits that she gives her students an ultimatum when she sees the phones. They can either put it away immediately or have it confiscated. School policy states that on the second offense, a parent must pick up the phone. Yet many parents claim they cannot run down to the school to grab their child’s phone, so many administrators wind up having to return them to the students anyway.
She has also noticed that those who text constantly almost always perform less well on tests than those who pay attention in class, explaining “That’s common sense. Brain’s can’t perform two tasks at the same time.” A scholarly article published in Teaching of Psychology in 2010 upholds this idea. It speaks of a study conducted on college students who were split into two groups. Both watched a video and were told to take notes on it as its material would appear on their next test. Yet a ringing cell phone disrupted one group’s movie experience, and those participants performed significantly worse on the part of the exam that covered information they could not hear as well as the other group due to the ringing.
Maya Cohen writes in “Cell Phones at School: Should They Be Allowed?” that cell phones allow kids to be in touch with their parents in the event of an emergency. Yet she also argues that ring tones and text-message alerts can prove extremely disruptive during lectures if students forget to silence their phones. Plus, cell phones have been used by students to call in false bomb threats to schools, and of course, they could be key tools in effective cheating and cyber-bullying.
According to David Raths in “Revisiting Cell Phone Bans in Schools,” 24 percent of K-12 schools in the U.S. ban cell phones altogether, and 62 percent allow phones on their grounds but ban them in the classroom. Nevertheless, organizations are eager to explore the market for mobile educational technology. PBS and the International Society for Technology in Education have created many educational apps geared toward students while the Princeton Review and Kaplan now offer text-based test preparation for the SAT.
The very recent decision of public schools in Montgomery, AL to allow cell phone use in the classroom sparked a debate of its own. Some argue that teachers can walk up and down desk aisles to monitor what their students are searching for online. An English professor from my college, however, has made the point to me that bringing devices like the iPad, which allow users to flow between Google, a Pages document, Facebook and online shopping with the sweep of a finger, to class would make it incredibly challenging for educators to monitor their usage for academic purposes.
Greg Graham argues in “Cell Phones in Classrooms? No! Students Need to Pay Attention” that New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the right idea when he instituted a cell phone ban in 2007 for the city’s public school system. He writes that today’s teenagers cannot remember a time when we weren’t so wired, when life didn’t move as quickly and accessing information took longer. He laments kids sleeping with cell phones beneath their pillows so that the buzzing of incoming messages will startle them from slumber. Neurological research is now confirming that we think and perform the best when what we are focusing on has our undivided attention. That means that texting and listening to the teacher discuss the causes of the Civil War is not the best way to ace the next exam.
As Michael Waterson mentions in “The Techno-Brain,” there is now little doubt that our love affair with technology is rewiring the very structure of our brains. Mobile devices constantly pinging and buzzing are cultivating a new ability to be drawn to distractions and an inability to switch tasks with ease.
Yet there is still hope for academic America. Students can be trained in the art of “single-tasking” in the classroom, if, as Dr. Naomi Baron, executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning desires, “a classroom (becomes) a room for sharing ideas, a space for contemplation, a setting for social interaction. None of these functions harmonizes with intrusion from the outside.”
No doubt high school students can belt out the chorus to Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer smash-hit “Call Me Maybe” or argue about the benefits and drawbacks of Twitter if you give them the opportunity. But whether or not they are allowing themselves unlimited and uninterrupted access to a solid–not to mention free–education is much more difficult to measure now that the rules of communication have changed.