Today I’m filling the oh-so-exciting role of “Study Hall Monitor”. Actually, that’s going to be my job for the next week – watching kids do homework. Awesome. (Read that with a note sarcasm, please.) Mind you, I’m not complaining about a week’s worth of sub work lined up. That part is awesome. I just have to come up with ways to entertain myself while I’m at it. I have my laptop, but I’m still waiting for the paperwork that will let me connect to the internet to finish being processed. I’m typing this post in a Word document which I’ll copy to WordPress later.
Fortunately, I’m a natural people-watcher, so that provides its own entertainment for today. The students in this school district are a good demographic – a nice, solid middle-class mix of generally behaved kids. Most of them sit quietly in their assigned seats without being reminded not to talk. They aren’t all working, but at least they’re quiet. One young man in the corner has his head down, catching a few more minutes of sleep before his next class. Others are drawn into the world of their personal devices. Yes, the smart phones, iPads, and iPods are allowed in study hall, just so long as they don’t disrupt the people around them. Earbud headphones cross all the cultural and social boundaries, the only common accessory among a sea of fashionistas, athletes, academics, and artsy types.
It’s interesting to look out over these kids, each one sucked into that world-wide web through a 3.5 inch screen. Some are texting, I’m sure. Some are watching YouTube, while others may actually be doing research. I don’t know exactly what’s happening on the tiny screens, but their owners all share a similar lack of expression, a look that says that in this moment they aren’t aware of the world beyond the screen. When something forces their attention away from that world, it’s like watching them wake up as they groggily pull the earbuds out and drag their eyes away from the pixels. Only then do they notice the people, sights, and sounds of reality as they leave behind their technological dreamland.
It’s hard not to think of Fahrenheit 451 in this moment. I see again the scene on the subway when Montag is surrounded by people all with the “seashells” in their ears, oblivious to the world around them, immersed in the mind-numbing advertising feeding directly into their brains. Bradbury just got the name of the technology wrong, is all. They aren’t seashells. They’re earbuds. Otherwise, he’s dead on, and it’s a little scary to see his prediction in action.
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.
Of course, as I write this, I’m staring at my own computer screen, but I feel a little justification from the fact that I’m not connected to the internet right now. I’m typing, thinking, and processing. I’m looking up, glancing around the room at frequent intervals. I’m observing the world around me and recording my observations through my keyboard. I have a screen in front of me, but I’m also aware of the reality that surrounds me.
I see the 30+ teenagers sitting in front of me, the clock ticking on the far wall, the two girls whispering across the tables, shooting furtive glances my direction to see if I notice. They aren’t very good at gauging my attention, since the brunette just tossed a crumpled up note to her friend right in front of me. Excuse me while I give them my best “teacher look” for a second. (The art of note-passing has died with the rise of texting. While I’m sure my friends and I weren’t as sneaky as we thought we were, I know we were better than that.) I see the bag of chips that boy’s trying to hide under the table, and the girl who just snapped a selfie. (In study hall? Really?) And I see the kids who justify the existence of study hall as they plow their way through worksheets, textbooks, and pages of notes. They have earbuds in, too, playing the music that drowns out the distractions and helps them zero in on the work in front of them.
The number of faces sucked into their screens increases as the day moves on. During 1st period, most of the students were frantically trying to finish their homework before their next class. By 8th period, most of them are mentally done for the day. It is the last period on a Friday, after all. Books stay in their backpacks while their thumbs work the 3.5 inches of screen in front of their faces. I wonder what would happen if that girl over there looked up and around. Would she see herself in the glazed expressions around her?
Would she see me that way, too?
Put your mind at rest, Mr. Bradbury. I’m going to read a book now.