Alienated or standing out?


I was volunteered to sale books at my daughter’s high school on my birthday afternoon. She heard the word books and she volunteered her mother. I love how she makes that instant association. Later, she realized it was my birthday and meekly asked, “Oh, it is your birthday? Will you do it?”

I, of course, did it. What better way to spend a couple of hours on my special day than to sell gently read books to book-loving teenagers to raise money for a good cause. I was in. I was also lured by the prospect of my high schooler sitting next to me during her lunch break. She said she will sell books with me while she was at lunch.

As I sat there among milling teens I observed a microcosm of the world we live in. It is all in there – the groups, the sub-groups, the layers, the sub layers. The popular teens – confident, dressy, flying hair, The gamers with the certain look and hair, the athletes, the scholarly ones colloquially known as nerds. The groups were different in demeanor, looks, attitude, confidence but they were similar in one aspect – the device they held in their hands, their smart phones. It was clear that the different groups sported a certain look and that look was one of uniformity within the group. I chuckled silently at the thought that these same teens who try to break out from the norm try their best to fit in and belong within their own peer group.

The high school has implemented the BYOD (Bring your own device) rule this year because they felt that social networking is and will be an integral part of the times and world that these young people will inherit. The objective of the school system, by allowing device in the school, was to teach the young adults responsible usage of social networking. I will not get into the debate of whether the experiment is successful or not. As I see it, it is a way of the education system to save face and tell the children, ‘Fine, bring your device to school, because we know you are sneaking it in anyway.’ The other benefit, according to the principal, was the children can use their own device to pull up resources during instruction time. And the ones who don’t have their own device (the tiny minority) will have access to the class computers.

The lunch break was an interesting time to observe the teens with their mobile phones. Most of them walked while their eyes were on the phones, different expressions played on their faces – beatific smiles, frowns, nonchalance, excitement and so forth as their fingers browsed internet/Facebook/ tumblr/snapchat. They walked with their friends but did not interact with them directly, like we used to. There were, however, interactions! Their laughter and camaraderie revolved around jokes/messages that they found on the phones and shared with their real life friends. Although it was odd to see them connected to their devices while their friends of flesh and blood sat right next to them, I did observe solidarity and enjoyment. It seemed odd to me only because I have experienced the laughs, angers, sentiments and direct communications with my friends before this wired age but these children have not. But these children have sustained their friendships, built and broken them, in this way. Whether the relationships they make now in this unique way will withstand the test of time, only time will tell. I recently read a beautiful post written by a friend lamenting the loss of direct communication. I lament it too and I feel our children are missing out. But then again, our children have hardly experienced or nurtured many friendships in our way, how can they miss what they never experienced?

There were some loners too. And there I saw the advantage of cell phones. If you are eating your lunch alone, you don’t seem conspicuous any more if you have your phone in front of you. You can blend in just fine if you hypnotically look at the screen held in your hand like everybody else. You don’t have to hide your head and find a corner to sit so no one will notice your loneliness.

My daughter has an antiquated device at home, but I was not convinced enough to send that device to school with her. I said she could use the school computers to access resources. She has done fine without her iPod in school. When I mentioned my observations to her she looked at me with ‘now you understand how alienated I feel because I don’t have a device at school’ expression. She said it too. I said, “How about you looking at it in a different way? Instead of feeling alienated, how about this idea – you are standing out?” She nodded her head disparagingly, “You don’t understand Mom. It does not work that way.”