When my students ask me what high school was like for me as a teenager, I think about my friends, the crazy fun we had, and the self-discoveries we made. I remember our fearlessness and the risks we took, all the stupid things we did, and all our humiliating mistakes. I recall the insecurities, the heartbreaks, the loneliness, the disappointments, and the regrets. And I turn to them with a lump in my throat, and the only thing I can manage to say is, “Well … we didn’t have cellphones.”
I know this is not the response they are looking for; but in avoiding a direct answer, I’ve said something truthful all the same: The emotional meat-grinder of our teen years will inevitably be, to paraphrase Dickens, the best and worst of times. Although many of the trials and tribulations of growing up may not have changed all that much since I was a teen, the speed at which they occur has.
For one thing (although it didn’t feel like it at the time), life moved at a much slower pace when I was a teen. If someone said they would pick you up from school, you waited and hoped they remembered. If they forgot to get you and you needed to call someone, you found a pay phone that was working and wasn’t being used. If you didn’t have change, you had to ask the operator to make a collect call and pray your baby sister didn’t answer the phone and refuse the charges. If you called a girl you liked and she had permission to use the phone, you still had to listen carefully for any telltale clicks to alert you that someone, somewhere, in your house or hers, wasn’t listening in on your conversation.
Before smartphones, if you did something to embarrass yourself—believe me—it eventually got around. Not within seconds like today, but by the end of the week for sure. And although bullying tended to be more of the face-to-face kind, you never wanted to underestimate the devastating power of good old-fashioned gossip or a well-placed lie. Back then, if you said something you regretted, you could always deny it later. Witnesses might contradict you, but at least that left room for some shadow of a doubt among the jury of your peers. If you say something you might regret today, and by “say” I mean text … you can never, ever take it back.
More and more of my students fail to distinguish the difference between these two actions: speaking and texting. “Do you talk to her?” I asked an emotionally distraught student the other day. “Yes, of course,” he assured me, “but lately she takes so long to return my texts.” It turns out they used to text a lot, but talk? Face to face? Not really. “Not even over the phone?” I asked. “C’mon, Mister…” he groaned, “texting’s just easier.”
In my day, breaking up over the telephone was considered gacho, low class…you know, not cool. Today, I imagine that’s been downgraded to breaking up by text. Who knows, maybe in the future someone will be able to show up in the form of a hologram in her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend’s bedroom to deliver the bad news “in person”: “But we can still be virtual-friends, can’t we?” he will ask. “Sorry,” the hologram will say, “but I just don’t have time for you.”
One of the challenges I found in writing a contemporary young adult novel was describing my characters’ use of technology in a way that was accurate, but not overly specific, especially when it came to cellphones. My greatest worry while working on the story, and especially while waiting to be published, was that there would be some drastic leap in the evolution of the cellphone and that by the time my book was released we’d all be using something else entirely to keep in constant contact with each other. This is not as paranoid as it might sound. Just think about how quickly you are able to date even recent films or television shows the moment a cell phone appears in someone’s hand. Luckily, no one has yet perfected a working model of the computer to brain interface (or CBI’s as they are referred to in that apocalyptic/dystopian story I’ve been working on), so I can breathe easy that, at least for now, my young adult novels correctly capture a day in the life of a typical teenager’s cellphone.