By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
A year ago, I was in the throes of “first child to graduate high school” adjustment. This May is steadier. But my schedule is just as crowded as my mind was a year ago, studded with other people’s children’s graduations. I count eight of them so far, senior pictures and invites pinned to the bulletin board, dates circled on every weekend of the new month.
Technically, it’s possible for me to count these seniors I know on two hands. Still, the sampling reminds me of the scope of the world and the way time passes as steadily as the marches played by pianists all over America as rows of gowned and hatted young adults walk solemnly through auditoriums. There’s no better time than early May to recognize the notion of a new generation coming of age.
My own children are part of this generation. It’s easy to forget that there are fathers and mothers all over the world with sons and daughters just like yours when parenting puts you in the thick of life. When the members of the generation are, say, toddlers screaming about broken crackers and shoes they’d rather not tie. Or when they still reverse “b” and “d” on their first-grade school papers and say “growed” instead of “grew.”
By the time the kids hit middle school, parents usually begin to have a sense that their offspring are part of something new and different. I’m not sure if life has always been this way, but I’m certain technological developments have accelerated the process. A few weeks ago, as we discussed cell phone use limits at my house, I realized my children had never experienced what I — and most of my own generation — recall clearly: the phone curfew.
Remember when phones were all plugged into wall outlets, and, for the sake of convenience, at least one of those outlets had a super-long, curly cord? At the parsonage in Minneola, that phone was in the kitchen, and a teenager who wanted a private conversation could stretch the cord across the room to the back hallway, which was separated by a door. The cord fit beneath the door, and the washing machine and dryer provided great background noise to muffle the conversation’s contents from anyone who tried to eavesdrop.
I could only stay on the phone for 30 minutes at a time, I told my incredulous children, because it wasn’t OK to tie up the line for longer than that. My father was a pastor, and people might need to contact him. Also, I couldn’t use the phone after a certain time of night to make or to receive calls. It was considered rude to call after 9 p.m. unless the situation was a true emergency — like an accidental death for which a pastor’s services were required.
And my parents fully expected to be told who was calling (or being called), and why. This wasn’t considered “creeping” or “controlling.” It was common sense to want to know the friends with whom your children spent time.
And, I said to my kids, children didn’t really use the telephone independently for social purposes anyway, until they were close to high school age.
Now, children younger than 10 have their own cell phones, and it’s been common for most of their lives. Parents are hard-pressed to keep up with the people who fill the social cicles of their sons and daughters.
Telephone technology is just one small example of the great revolution that’s taken place during the life span of the teens who will graduate this month. They’ve come of age with the Internet, the digitalization of media content — remember having to purchase cassette tapes? when compact discs were the wave of the future? — the growth of new types of crime and security, the slow disappearance of daily newspapers and cash purchases.
My son’s driver’s license was stolen, then returned, earlier this week. Before it showed up again, his father took him to the police station to file a report; no young person in this day and age can afford to risk the possibility of identity theft, so it’s important to document the disappearance of government-issued ID. Two decades ago, when I was a young adult living in Chicago, my wallet was stolen three times, and I just replaced the necessary documents without much concern.
I didn’t talk to my parents very often when I lived in Chicago. Cell phones did not exist and long-distance calling cost too much. I didn’t own a credit card. When I wanted to travel home, or to visit friends in Europe, I carried cash to the slightly disreputable-looking travel agency 10 blocks from my apartment and puchased real paper tickets. My experience as the long-distance parent of a young adult living halfway across the country has been radically different: I video-chat with my daughter once a week, and we call or text back and forth almost daily. I know exactly what her on-campus apartment for next year looks like, because the college posts floor plans and photos on its website.
At 44, my age has not yet rendered me a relic; I’ve managed to master the rudiments of the technology, though I have yet to explore Instagram or Snapchat. Yet I sense the rush of time when I look at the colorful portraits pinned to my kitchen wall. The style this year continues to be off-kilter photographs angled at about 20 degrees, subjects dressed casually, the girls wearing heels. I look at the faces of these children, not much younger or older than my own, and I wonder what kind of world they will create for the rest of us. I imagine calling my grandchildren someday to catch up on their lives. Then realize we might not even use telephones at that point.
Good thing we will still have families. The important things, as I have discovered over the past year with the daughter who graduated high school last may, don’t change.