Tag Archives: cell phone addiction

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days, Part the Third–On Being and Unbeing

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This is e. e. cummings

I’ve been writing lately about student behavior. In one blog I commiserated with my elementary school colleagues about young children who cause violent disruptions and I bemoaned the high school apathy I saw at my own school, and in another blog I wrote about surprising teenage shenanigans, you know, like bringing communion wafers to class. Today I want to write about an essay I’m studying with my 9th graders, an excerpt from “Nonlecture Two” by e. e. cummings. In this essay, cummings makes a number of assertions. One, that our idea of home is commensurate to our idea of privacy. Two, most of us have no conception of what privacy really is. Three, our “walls” are full of “holes.” Four (and there are more, but I want to linger here), we have difficulties being here, now, ourselves, and alone, in part, because we are terribly distracted beings, and here I have to quote directly and generously from the essay:

Why (you ask) should anyone want to be here, when (simply by pressing a button) anyone could be in fifty places at once? How could anyone want to be now, when anyone can go whening all over creation at the twist of a knob? What could induce anyone to desire aloneness, when billions of soi-disant dollars are mercifully squandered by a good and great government lest anyone anywhere should ever for a single instant be alone? As for being yourself–why on earth should you be yourself; when instead of being yourself you can be a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand thousand, other people? The very thought of being oneself in an epoch of interchangeable selves must appear supremely ridiculous.

Now, we’ve read a biographical sketch of our poet, and have read and probably even recorded the years during which cummings was alive. We’ve maybe even glossed over the publication date of this essay. But in our attempt at a close reading of this piece, that information does not resurface. Not right away. So here’s a tale of two different classes responding to the same text:

In my first period today, one student, in response to the above passage, in particular to the “pressing a button” and the “twist of a knob,” says, “He’s talking about our smart phones.” At this point in the discussion I am so excited that I can remember nothing of what was said afterwards verbatim, but I clearly remember talk about how our smart phones allow us to go “whening all over creation,” allow us to be “a hundred thousand thousand other people,” and perhaps most ominously, prevent us from being alone, from being and knowing ourselves. And I specifically remember the priceless look on another student’s face as she begins to understand. These moments are the moments I live for as a teacher. And when someone asks the question, “When was this piece written?” Our mouths all fall open with amazement when we remind ourselves that the book i: Six Nonlectures was published in 1953. The knobs and buttons cummings refers to are likely radio tuning knobs, rotary dials, and if one was lucky enough to have a television, the channel selector. The poet saw and (perhaps) exaggerated (maybe) the dangers of his technology but managed to predict with perfect precision the powers and the dangerous reality of our own. Our addictive use of smart phones epitomizes the point he’s making.

Second period. I try and fail to recreate the epiphany from the period before. I fail for a couple of reasons. First, I move against the tenets of this particular strategy that students must construct their own knowledge while the teacher simply records their observations, questions, and conclusions. Instead, I ask a guiding question: “Do you notice in this passage the images of pressing a button or twisting a knob?” Then I admit, “This absolutely blows my mind.” Then I follow up, having already established that the piece was published in 1953: “What knobs and buttons might he be referring to?” In response, students talk about their knowledge of 1950s technology, radio, maybe television. I ask another question: “What do you think of his claim that radio or television might be having these adverse effects on us? Why is your teacher blown away by this?” Crickets. And as I scan the room, I notice a different kind of failure: a number of kids, a much larger number than I would care to admit, stare intently at their smart phone screens. They are, in this moment, “whening all over creation,” distracted by others, being anybody else, incapable of being alone, incapable of grasping the fact that they are the subject and the object lesson of this essay. We are indeed in an “epoch of interchangeable selves.”

Five (I’m continuing here, with the list of the poet’s assertions): poetry is being, not doing. Six: and if you’d like, at whatever distance, to follow “the poet’s calling,”

you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being.

He continues with his seventh, eighth, and ninth assertions, expressed in these two glorious sentences:

I am quite aware that, wherever our so-called civilization has slithered, there’s every reward and no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you–nobody else–who determine your destiny and decide your fate.

I love it that he says that this is what you must do if poetry is your goal. I love that, because I don’t think it’s really what he means. Or, rather, he’s not being literal. Poetry is my life, or, poetry can be your life even if you never write a word! And that’s what my greatest hope is for my students, not that they run out the door with a burning desire to write poetry (although that would be nice), but rather, they live their lives as if they were poems, they recognize that poetry is being, that it’s difficult to be, much easier and “rewarding” to unbe, but that somehow they  gain the wherewithal and the self knowledge to regain their privacy, their aloneness, their sense of self-identity unclouded or polluted by the never-ending noise and distraction of the stupid smart phone, to determine their own destiny and fate so somebody else doesn’t do it for them.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Teaching, Education, Literature

#165: Our Phones Are Too Much With Us

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This was too damn hard. Finally, I had to abandon Wordsworth’s awesome rhyme scheme because almost nothing rhymes with seven. At any rate, “The World Is Too Much With Us” is one of my all-time favorite poems and now I’ve gone and ruined it.  The poem, exactly as Wordsworth penned it, published in 1807, says as much about our cell phone addiction as my paltry offering does! I struggled with the fact that so much of the time I just wanted to leave the poem exactly as it was. The assignment today was to write a satire or parody based on a famous poem. The following is neither satire nor parody. Read the original after mine in the unlikely event that you don’t know the poem!
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Our Phones Are Too Much With Us
Our phones are too much with us; twenty-four seven,
texting and sexting, we lay waste our hours;—
Little we tweet that has any power;
We have surfed our minds away, a dead heaven!
This Sky that beckons with stars at eleven;
The friends standing next to us at all hours
Are all neglected now like weed choked flowers;
For this, our constant gaming; we are out of whack;
It moves us not. WTF! I’d rather be
A monkey climbing trees in a forest;
So might I, leaping from limb to odd limb
Feel a part of a thriving, singing chorus;
and I’d laugh at people, all distant and dim;
who from their stupid smart phones can’t divorce.
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The World Is Too Much With Us
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

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#10: Your Dumb Smart Phone

cellphoneThe assignment today was to write an “un-love” poem. The Smiths come to mind, for so many reasons, but in particular the lyric, “I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday” from the Strangeways, Here We Come album. Morrissey was/is the king of the “un-love” song. Sure, I can do that, I thought. And I started thinking about all the things I un-love, and it didn’t take very long, because the subject of my “un-love” poem today is a thing I un-love more than almost anything in the world, or at least, the thing that most annoys me: excessive, obsessive, chronically habitual cell phone usage. What follows is my tenth poem in celebration of National Poetry Writing Month.

Your Dumb Smart Phone

Turn it off.
Put it away.
Be here, now.
That thing in your hands, that thing
you caress and cradle against your cheek
like a lover, is killing you, both literally
and figuratively. What’s the report, people?
Distracted drivers die and kill,
sometimes they die and kill at the same time.
That’s clear. It’s statistically true.
What’s more, not deadly but infuriating,
is that being in the presence of someone
who is constantly looking at a screen
that is nowhere near one’s proximity,
makes one feel ignored,
unimportant, insignificant, disregarded,
snubbed, like one is in the presence of a crack addict.
My theory is this: If you can’t go several hours
without receiving or sending a text, or an instagram,
or a pintarest, or a flipping tweet,
checking or posting on faceplant, you are toast.
You’re a ghost. You’re not even in this space.
And you are depriving yourself of life-giving oxygen,
of anything that might happen in your actual sphere
of existence: a smile, a kind word, an interesting thought,
a provocative question, the physical community
of family and friends and peers and mentors.
Whatever it was, you missed it
and it will never happen again.
Be here, now.
Put it away.
Turn it off.

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Filed under Culture, Poetry