Being a Person

Dear Friends-

I remember clearly the first full day I spent at Randolph for one very specific reason: I realized immediately that my relationship to the microcomputer/telecommunication device I carried in my pocket was about to change dramatically. I remember walking around wanting to check my texts, my emails, my phone messages, and realizing that nobody at the school seemed to be having that same impulse.

I didn’t see a single person on a cell phone that day, which was the exact opposite of the school environment I had just left in which cell phone usage by children and adults was the norm, not the exception. I’m not even talking about cell phone use in class, which was its own constant battle. I’m talking about walking around crowded school hallways between classes constantly worried that you were going to run into (or be run into by) someone because of the distraction of the screen. Needless to say, the phone free day at Randolph was eye opening and exhilarating. If I’m totally honest with myself I can also remember being a little bit scared about the fact that I, too, was going to be spending my days without constant feedback and information from my iDevice.

What was that fear? I love Louis C.K.’s take on it, which is that we use our devices to stave off feeling empty and alone. He says that using our phones allows us to “never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kind of satisfied…” He continues: “The thing is, you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something... that's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there...that's being a person, right?”

This falls in line with the discussion we had after our recent showing of the movie Screenagers, in which the teens in the room readily agreed with the assertion from the film that cell phones are a way to appear occupied with something cool and important when you were in reality feeling vulnerable and socially awkward.

It feels like parents and communities need to take this idea seriously. Are we facing a deficit of self-confidence, self-awareness, and of the skills needed to connect successfully with our fellow humans? Are we, in the words of Jonathan Safran Foer, becoming “diminished substitutes,” distracted by our screens in ways that make it difficult for us to be emotionally present in a way that is fully human? If so, how do we approach that problem? I know I struggle with my own phone use regularly, and worry that I am often modeling behavior that I hope dearly my own children don’t follow. I am a work in progress on this front...

Randolph School is not a technology free zone. Indeed, I actually spend more of my time looking at a computer screen now than I ever did before. But it is an environment in which the sound of a cell phone ringing is a rarity, and in which children and adults are participating in daily routines that require attention, engagement, empathy, self-reflection, and connectivity. We allow our students the space and support to feel “completely sad or completely happy” as well as the option “to just sit there” from time to time… being a person. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is!

Be well,

Ben


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