On the first day of third grade, the children found their teachers on the multicolored playground. The younger daughter’s class assembled by the carved wooden owl and they formed a line, a skill not practiced over the summer. They were gangly, tan and full of bounce, with jack-o-lantern smiles, new Crocs and T-shirts from summer places. The annual reshuffle of personalities reconfigured by class list and peppered by new kids.
I watched in horror and fascination as one of her classmates, a new boy in fashion-forward skate punk clothing and a hairstyle, who reeked of ennui, whipped out an iPhone and began day trading or organizing his holiday snaps as the class marched into the building and all that lay before them as a new school year began.
Just as swiftly, one of the teachers, plucked it from his hands and said he could have it back at the end of the day.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
Fast forward a couple of years and my daughter bemoans the fact that she does not have a phone. And not just a phone, but an iPhone. Until recently, she was the only girl in her class who did not have pierced ears, now she lacks a data plan.
Parenting is like standing on the shore as the tide laps at your feet. Requests are made and denied, wishes granted, desires are satisfied and recede. You watch the waves come in and roll out. Some kind of balance is achieved but all the while the tide moves up or back. You try to not let your feet become implanted in the sand nor let the waves knock you down.
Or maybe parenting is being a storm chaser. Or a sailor. It is essentially a person and nature situation. The navigational strategies are the nurture components.
In 2008, a third grader with an iPhone was extreme and ridiculous but very quickly the kids would catch up and it was neither. In fifth grade it was all about apps. And she still didn’t have a phone, not even one of those prepay ones “for emergencies” that parents used to get their kids when they were afraid they might get mugged. We upgraded her iPod shuffle to an iPod touch so she could have a camera, do email, have music and a few apps, but, really, a phone? Why?
Now 12, she still thinks we should get her a phone, but more often she comes home with stories of how she has been with friends who have spent the whole time texting each other and not talking. Twice a week she helps out with the morning drop-off at school, unloading little kids from cars and making sure they get into the building safely. Often there are screens in the cars, handheld or mounted on the seatbacks. People not talking. Bags of drive-thru breakfast on the seat.
She is like the only sober person at a party of drunks. Part of her just wants what everyone else has and doesn’t want to be left out, but she is also able to see how sometimes everyone has gone a bit mad, that the dream they’re chasing is, you know, not so great. Now that she has email, she has junk mail.
Yesterday she gets her hands on a device and texts me. I am standing in the room with her. Hello, she texts me. Hey. Then, check ur messages. Then, Repli. Then, Ur phone is making mad noises.
Child, I say, stop doing that.
I remember taking a paracetamol tablet after a year of abstaining from any type of substance during pregnancy. As the drug hit my veins and dissolved my headache, I felt like a character in a Hubert Selby Jr. novel.
The other day I was driving the younger daughter and two friends. It was a 10-minute trip. “Finish telling your story,” one says. Apparently, they had started stories at school and so she picks it up, from out of her head, and spins it. It’s her story, so I won’t retell it, but it’s actually rather good. When we get to our destination, we sit in the car as she closes a scene. The friends say, “it’s really good.” “It’s like a real story.” I wait until they are out of the car so I won’t embarrass her before I concur.
When she was little, she had inventions, but said she was keeping them in her head so no one would steal them. Every now and then, I would suggest that she write them down so that she wouldn’t forget them, because that would be terrible, to be haunted by the ghost of a memory of a great idea.
And this is what it’s like as they grow up, they have these strengths that blossom when you least expect it. Eventually, she will need a phone so that she can call her executive car service to pick her up from the pool, and that day will come, but there is something worthwhile to be gained from the clarity of her observations that I hope she won’t forget as the wind draws her into the vortex of whatever storm is brewing.
Photo taken at the Smithsonian by the younger daughter, July 2011.