Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The telephone is ringing--is that my mother on the phone?*

This morning I had another one of those moments that makes me feel middle aged...and glad of it.

I took the PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) over to the Evansdale campus for a meeting.  For those unfamiliar with the PRT, it's a sort of monorail system with unmanned cars that shuttle to and from five different stations around Morgantown.  They hold about 12 people total, and are usually populated by undergrads going back and forth from classes on the downtown campus and the dorms on the Evansdale campus.

It's always interesting to ride the PRT early in fall semester, since the vast majority of dorm-dwellers at WVU are freshmen, and thus most of the PRT riders are freshmen as well.

One of the many things WVU freshmen have to get acculturated to is the etiquette of the PRT:  sit or stand?  Are you allowed to interject into someone else's conversation, since you're standing six inches away from them, or are you supposed to pretend you're not listening?  And can you talk on your cell phone or not?  Even students who might have had some kind of big-city subway experience aren't sure whether the standard subway-rider etiquette applies, since your fellow riders aren't necessarily complete strangers, even if they are at the moment.

This morning, as the lone non-student in the car**, I noted that most of my very young-looking fellow riders still seemed a little uncomfortable.  It was a quiet ride, though in a few weeks I'll undoubtedly be overhearing the usual conversations about annoying roommates and neighbors, amusing drunken exploits, and football football football.

What I really noticed, though, was that to a person, every student had a cell phone clutched in one hand, except for the lone guy who was eating a snow cone.  At 9:30 in the morning.  I love that guy.

It being week two, no one was using their cell phone during the trip.  But despite the fact that they all had backpacks or pockets where they could stow said phones, they held on to them as if letting go would somehow disconnect them from the life force itself.  It reminded me of the way my nephew clings to the TV remote:  try to wrest it from him when he's asleep and he'll wake up instantly and look at you as if he'd caught you preparing to murder him.

As I looked on this scene, I wondered where my own cell phone was.  In the outside pocket of my bookbag, where it sometimes lives?  No, I thought:  it's at home, in my purse, turned off.  And my iPod Touch is on the nightstand, recharging.

I was unplugged, and not only was I OK with that, I prefer being unreachable much of the time.

Of course, I'm not accustomed to being plugged in 24/7 like this generation of students is.  I've often thought that my own freshman year might have been a lot less traumatic if e-mail, the web, and cell phones were available then.

After my experience with the helicopter dad last week, a number of friends on Facebook shared their experiences detaching from their parents when they left for college, most of which fell along the lines of Lynn and Heather's experiences:
"My parents said goodbye, hugged me, and then I got on the plane."
"I left for college on a train with a suitcase, a small trunk, and an airline carry-on containing a small terrarium with a lizard.  I did not suffer unduly."
For me, the scariest thing when my parents left me at college was knowing that I had no way of getting ahold of them for days:  they were driving back to Ohio, and of course they didn't have a cell phone, or phone numbers for places they'd be staying. And aside from the pay phone in the dorm, I didn't have a phone, either.   I suppose if I did, I'd probably have been clutching it like my life depended on it, too.

The irony is that the potential to be in immediate, constant contact doesn't seem to have diminished either students' or parents' anxieties.  In fact, the New York Times recently featured a story about colleges that have instituted formal "parting ceremonies" to ease the transition.

I don't have kids.  I won't presume to understand what it must be like when they leave the nest.  But I will say that I do wonder whether that acculturation process would be quicker, and healthier, if students were a little more unplugged from their past, and a little more plugged into the present. 

But then again, one of the great personal challenges of college is figuring out how to link your past with your present, and eventually with your future.  It takes a long time to discover, as my friend Becky wrote in a song lyric once, that "who you are now will depend on the people you've been."

In the end, though, I guess I'm glad I went to college during the technological stone age.  Yeah, all those tools might have made things easier at the time, but then I would never have all the letters from that time, all the evidence of the person I was then.  After all, I still depend on her now.   No cell-phone call record could capture her essence so well.

* If you know the song whose lyrics inspired the title of this post, then you went to college during the stone age, too.

** Which is pretty typical:  faculty and staff seem to be even less willing to rely on public transportation than the students.


Pam said...

You forgot to mention that the reason you were trying to get Justin's remote in the middle of the night was to turn the volume down from blast your eardrums out. Too bad he didn't have a death grip on *his* cell phone when he got lost on the PRT.

Beth said...

Imagine what it must have been like during the Westward expansion when your family left to find fortune in the newly opened western states. The last time many heard from loved ones was by letter posted from St. Louis, the "gateway to the west." It may have been months or years until you learned whether they survived the trip. Or, for that matter, didn't.

Same could be said for the great migration from Ireland to American during the famine. You rarely knew if your family made it to New York, saying goodbye at the docks was often the last you ever saw or heard from them. Ever.

Maybe colleges should not only institute "parting ceremonies" but a week of no calling, no emailing, no texting, no Twitter/Facebooking to allow everyone some distance to gain perspective and get a grip.

Catherine Zoerb said...

"Yeah, all those tools might have made things easier at the time, but then I would never have all the letters from that time, all the evidence of the person I was then."

That's what kills me about FB, cell phones, etc. Almost nobody writes letters anymore. I know of many people who keep private journals...but the journal is kept on their computer.

I have piles of notes and letters and diaries from my past. I love reading them, and I love reading books of letters and diaries. It just kills me that future generations may not have that.