I gave my 7th graders an assignment called “Tech Fast” to complete over the holidays. It’s a rite of passage for the middle-schoolers: for two days, students are to live without technology of any kind—no cell phones, no computers, no music, no television. In the season of giving and receiving, news of the assignment was not received all that well, but the kids came back in January, still alive, having completed the Tech Fast, looking much like they did when they left before break.
The intent was not (despite what some of the 7th graders believed) to torture. We had just read Fahrenheit 451, a book that loudly depicts the potential hazards of overuse of and dependency on technology. I had never read it before teaching it this year; I had always believed that Bradbury wrote the novel as a reaction against McCarthyism and censorship. But Bradbury explains that his book stemmed from something less political, from something more personal. Fahrenheit isn’t about what happens when governments decide what people should or should not read. It is about what might happen when free people with access to every book imaginable, make the conscious decision not to read.
Bradbury’s main character Montag is married to Mildred, who sits all day with “seashells” in her ears, listening to her television “relatives” endlessly talk of nothing from the three walls of screens surrounding her (constant, deafening noise, chatter, lights), and all Mildred wants is for her husband to buck up and buy that fourth wall. Mildred can’t hold a conversation. Mildred can’t think a creative thought, and when she does stop long enough to think, she attempts suicide. Mildred is one of a slew of hopelessly sad depictions living in a dangerously familiar future society.
But Bradbury’s Clarisse, Montag’s neighbor, is a young girl who fully participates with the world around her. She asks questions and initiates discussions. Montag hears laughter move across the lawn from Clarisse’s house—a hearty, relaxed, natural laughter, coming from a lit home, not one darkened at night so folks can better view a screen. “Montag heard the voices talking, talking, talking, giving, talking, weaving, reweaving their hypnotic web.” My students were drawn to Clarisse immediately and understood it—right away—that Clarisse is the person to be. We talked about what it means, to talk. And better yet, what it means to listen.
During one lesson I brought in my iPod and played Miles Davis, my choice of jazz representative—an example of culture counter to the mainstream 1950’s society Bradbury was criticizing. Students listened to songs from Kind of Blue, and as they sat, they wrote reactions in their journals describing the “back and forth,” “weaving,” “dynamics,” even “tension,” in the music they heard. Jazz is like talking, we all decided.
And when you really talk, when you sit down to have a conversation, there is potential for pause, for volume, for conflict and tension, for resolve, for back and forth, for storytelling.
When I was in high school, my friends knew the rule, and if they were new friends, they figured the rule out pretty quickly: Whatever you do, don’t call my house between the hours of 6 and 7 pm because you are not going to like the way you feel if my mom answers the phone. I experienced Empathy Embarrassment–guilt grated like the Parmesan on my spaghetti–as I witnessed my mom curtly informing said “friend” that he or she was calling during dinnertime. The hour was sacred at the Regan household, the time when we all–at whatever age and stage, if we were living under my mom’s roof—would sit down together, to eat . . . and to talk.
I learned to love the time and rely on the talking. Our tiny, circular kitchen table was the place and still is. Even today I can picture my parents sitting there together just before dinner, snacking on cheese and crackers, sipping wine, retelling the moments of the day. My mom did her best advising at that kitchen table: she persevered, counselling us through teenage angst and young-adult worry. And my dad, he continues to tell the greatest stories from his spot at the table, his hands resting on the crossword or wrapped around a coffee mug.
My kids get to listen to my dad now, which is lovely to witness: Pop-Pop’s one to break into instantaneous song. He’ll narrow in to talk to one of my girls and I’ll get to see her eyes widen with delight. It honestly does not matter that I’ve heard each story countless times before. I welcome the tales, like I comfortably toss on my favorite pair of pj-pants at the end of a long day. The weaving and reweaving, the giving and taking: there’s not a lot better as far as I’m concerned.
It’s nice that I grew up that way, as did so many others. As parents, my husband and I are trying to prioritize reading, creativity, outside play, all that good stuff. It’s also nice that the fate of humanity is not resting on my shoulders because I was obsessive about watching The Voice last fall and so were my kids. If Blake Shelton and Adam Levine were to somehow start talking to me directly from three surrounding walls at high volume, I have to say, I would not be unhappy. My husband and I have agreed more than once that it would be fun to have beers with Blake and Adam. So there are times, I do feel a little Mildred coming on.
And there are Mildred’s out there: There are people who need to turn off the television. There are people who need to read a book. This is real.
What I find to be real as well, as I teach my 7th graders, is a genuine feeling of hope. Granted, I teach just a slice of humanity, I understand, but if I am to generalize about “kids these days,” I conclude that all is not lost. In an earlier project, I asked students to write about an object that symbolizes them in some way, and they wrote about soccer balls, pianos, skateboards—not many if any wrote about an Xbox or a Wii.
The Tech Fast, yes, it challenged them, but it did not bury them. They took to their sleds; they played board games with their siblings; they talked to their parents. They resoundingly agreed that the Fast didn’t change their lives all that much: no one picked up a new language or discovered anything astonishingly new about herself. Using less technology simply allowed the kids to do more of something else.
It’s just that “simple” that I want to appreciate and I can when I visit my old home: I feel a little more Clarisse coming on. It’s what can happen when I surround myself with people I love. We talked: my dad, my siblings, my in-laws. We faced each other around kitchen tables, high-topped counters, and comfortable couches. We told stories, sang songs.
We went for walks, hit a museum, read books.
I use Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and so do some of my students. So too will my own kids, I’m fairly certain, unless new takes over “old” by then. Right now I am here at this computer. Pandora plays softly. I need and appreciate technology.
But sitting around a childhood kitchen table reminds me that instead of looking for the next best thing on Pinterest (or whatever the gadget or Website), I also need to value what it is that I already know–what’s embedded in me, what’s been passed on. Bring back a cookie recipe from my mother’s hand-written card, flip through an old songbook and teach my girls to harmonize to Moonlight Bay, just like my mother did, and just like her mother did before.
Tell an old story. Talk and talk and weave and talk some more. Light up the house. Laugh until it hurts.