The Bar Jester Chronicles 7: Morning Cyanide

by Jason Peters on October 14, 2009 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

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(Photo: Mackenzie Brastrap Fooling the Teacher)

Rock Island, IL

“Morning Cyanide” is a fun game for the whole family. The best thing about it is this: not everyone has to be awake at the same time to play it. All you have to do is note what time it is when you wake up and then note it again the first time you feel like reaching for the cyanide. Whoever makes it the longest between waking and committing suicide wins.

The best way to win this game is to be the sort of person who, without any compunction whatsoever, can turn on a television in the morning. If you can obliterate the best part of the day with the blue glow and the peroxide chatter, you needn’t worry that a warm bath and an open vein are in your future. Despair may be your element, but the thing about despair, as Kierkegaard pointed out, is that it doesn’t know it’s despair. You’ll clip along just fine in a haze of malaise that will feel for all the world like ecstasy or high-quality California cannabis. There might even be a sale going on at Target.

The person who’s going to lose this game will do one of two things to start his day: either he will turn on a computer or he will read a newspaper, both of which will present him with such signs of the apocalypse as to make him scramble for the nearest can of rat poison–such signs, for example, as the one with which the Associated Press ruined my most recent Saturday.

(Moral: put off the morning rite at your own risk—and be sure someone has hidden the arsenic.)

The title of the article in question—“School Lets Kids Use Cell Phones”—was enough to make me reach at five a.m. for a bottle of Vodka and all the pills in the house. But was I smart enough to leave it at that and go in search of joyful news in the obituaries? I was not.

Here’s how AP English class works at Wiregrass Ranch High School:

[The teacher] ended her [or his] class announcements and told her [or his] students to take out their cell phones.

“I need at least three people who can get a signal in here,” [the teacher] said to her [or his] advanced placement literature class. “We’re going to be studying the works of D.H. Lawrence, and I want you to find some things about him that you don’t already know,”

because biographical information is the sort of thing you get from a phone during class, not the sort of thing you get outside of class on your own time in preparation for reading, say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Nearly everyone whipped out a phone—

because nearly everyone has been taught to say “yes, please” to whatever is for sale–

and began tapping away. Within moments, the teens were sharing their Internet discoveries.

“He lived during World War I.”

“He had relationships with men and women.”

“He lived the second half of his life in exile, considered a pornographer who had wasted his talents.”

With each detail, [the “teacher”] pulled her [or his] students deeper into a discussion about the author.

How deep? So deep that

[w]hen the talk had run its course, the students set their phones down and turned their attention to another author.

So much for D.H. Lawrence. Next.

In a world where most high schools have adopted a “we see them, we take them” policy on cell phones, Pasco County’s Wiregrass Ranch High School swims upstream[,]

thinks outside the box, and avoids cliches like the plague.

It encourages teachers to allow students to use their phones in classes for educational purposes. Teens routinely use their phones to shoot pictures for projects, calculate math problems, check their teachers’ blogs and even take lecture notes.

What those lecture notes look like: omg dhl did what? wtf?

“I think it’s a good policy, because[,]

with the exception of the students, teachers, administrators, and parents,

we’re all pretty much adults here,” senior [name omitted] said. “People are going to text no matter what,

she [or he] added, citing what she [or he] learned from reading her [or his] primer on logic.

“So I think it’s good that the principal and staff here are being open and letting us use it for educational purposes.”

Senior [name omitted], who attended Freedom High in Hillsborough before moving to Wiregrass Ranch, called his [or her] new school “ahead of the game.”

How far ahead of the game? So far ahead that they’re

“just following the rest of the world. It’s going digital,” he [or she] said, checking his [or her] phone for messages repeatedly during a short interview,

thereby parroting the permitted chatter and demonstrating his–or her–mile-wide attention span.

“Once you’re 16 or 17, there’s things you need to know throughout the day,

such as subject-verb agreement.

It was so inconvenient when I had to hide it all the time.”

But now school is convenient. It’s like driving. Or shopping at the local Kum & Go.

Many teachers agreed.

“They all have them anyway, and they’re all dying to use them in class,” said Spanish teacher [name omitted,] who

doesn’t want students to die in class and who, misconstruing the word “life,”

admitted that she [or he] stores her [or his] life in her [or his] cell phone and uses it for a variety of functions. “If they’re texting when they’re supposed to be listening, I might tell them to put it away. But you might teach them a way to use it that might be applicable to their learning.”

Double might? Like, how promising is that!

Students in her [or his] English for language learners class often use their phones to take pictures of items she [or he] says in English, to demonstrate they understood her [or him],

there being no other way to express understanding save by means of purchasable gizmos.

Does this new openness to the wonders of technology exclude anyone?

The few students who don’t have phones share in small groups, or use alternative school equipment.

One girl [or boy] raised her [or his] hand in [the "teacher's"] class during the D.H. Lawrence discussion and said, “As the only person in here without a phone, I have a question.” It quickly got answered,

because all questions have quick answers.

“Allowing students to use their cell phones in class means things get done immediately, which translates into more efficient use of learning time,” [the teacher, educated at public expense,] said.

And what, for example, did Mackenzie get accomplished during AP English? She learned three facts about dhl, went deep into his littacher, and then started on another awther. She also told Mandy over in home room that she thinks Karsten is hot, that Taeler is wearing a top she wore last year, and that omg Sons and Lovers was written by a queer!

And on 17 March 1801 Coleridge observed his son, Hartley, not yet five, looking out the window at some mountains. Coleridge grabbed a mirror and showed him

the whole magnificent Prospect in a Looking Glass, and held it up, so that the whole was like a Canopy or Ceiling over his head, and he struggled to express himself concerning the Difference between the Thing and the Image almost with convulsive Effort.–I never before saw such an Abstract of Thinking as a pure act and energy, of Thinking as distinguished from Thoughts. (from the Notebooks )

Just think what a good signal could have done for poor Hartley’s attenuated understanding of what his dad called the “mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking.”

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Weasly Pilgrim October 14, 2009 at 7:18 am

Amen! Preach it, brother! Ain’t no antidote to the morning cyanide like watching another competitor take the figurative ipecac and vent his spleen on the terminally distracted with their mile-wide-but-millimeter-deep attention spans and their electronic brain-replacements. (Can we say mixed metaphor? I knew we could.)

In all seriousness, this was good for a LOL (really a ROTFL but the floor here is less than clean).

I wonder sometimes how much all that radiation from wireless devices—such a bland term; surely we could come up with something more glitzy—and the support infrastructure for said devices is destroying gray matter and, in terms of brain cells per brain, dumbing us all down.

avatar Alethea October 14, 2009 at 8:49 am

Wow–such a tough balance between encouraging teens to get into the information on their own terms, and calling them to a higher and more noble enterprise (namely, thinking). This school has done better (in my opinion) than other schools that see and take phones–at least this one is aknowledging the power and attraction that such devices wield. The bigger problem, though, is that our entire consumer culture demands information instantly instead of pondering through dialogue.

That was an odd way to start an article, but makes sense with the rest of it. Thank you!

avatar James Matthew Wilson October 14, 2009 at 8:53 am

Jason, when you are in Hell, roasting for the sins of your countrymen or countrywomen or countrysurgicallymodifiedgenderchoicers — Facebook me.

avatar Mark October 14, 2009 at 9:30 am

I wish I had read this on a Blackberry so I could have my morning dose of everything-is-in-decline with a side of irony. Or as the kids these days call it: being a hipster.

avatar John Médaille October 14, 2009 at 9:37 am

I just lost the cyanide game. Has there ever been such a society that actively hated its own children as much as we hate ours?

When the Roman army was at the gates and the city about to fall, the Carthaginians fired up the furnace and threw all their children in it as a sacrifice to Moloch, thinking that so great a sacrifice would save the city. It didn’t, and the city was destroyed so that not one stone was left upon another, and the ground sowed with salt so that the fertile fields became deserts.

Perhaps no city more deserved its fate. But on the other hand, it really was a sacrifice, they really were giving up their most valued possession. And at least it saved them from a life of slavery. We actively seek a life of slavery, for ourselves and our children. What will be our fate?

avatar Katherine Dalton October 14, 2009 at 10:17 am

I think Mr. Medaille has put his finger on the difference between ourselves and much of our past–the ancients were brutally honest with themselves about what they were doing, and we never are.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 14, 2009 at 10:57 am

At some point, in the distant future, some aliens are going to come upon this watery ash heap and not operate upon our wire or digital frequency and find it odd that the culture seemed to have stopped documenting itself in the early 21st century. Newspapers, books, book stores, libraries, they all seemed to vanish around 2021. It will determine perhaps that the culture simply admitted that there was nothing new left to be said and so it ended its existence in a blissful mosh of idle chatter and “easy answers”. In fact, they will discover a book entitled “The End of History” and stroke their chins in knowing contemplation.

Everyone will of course have big hooters, nice teeth, properly dishabille hair and a giant tattooed lump the size of Hoboken just behind their ear. This is one of the reasons the hipster’s mesh knit hat is such a prescient headcover…it stretches.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 14, 2009 at 11:15 am

OMO (Oh my, Obama) everyone’s so….well, so philosophical today, starting with Bro Jason!
Yoo,yoo,yoo!

avatar Thomas G. October 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Is it any wonder that 25% of my generation is on antidepressants, and the other 75% are using depressants?

Contempt or self loathing. Who said we don’t have freedom of choice?

avatar cecelia October 14, 2009 at 5:19 pm

seems to me that back in the old days we found ways to amuse ourselves when bored to death in school. Granted, passing notes to each other doesn’t have quite the high tech quality of the cell phone (although given how long it took to get from quills to ball point pens, I’d say the ball point pen represents a fairly high tech gadget). I do recall games of hangman and tic tac toe scribbled on paper folded in tiny packets being passed between those I sat in front of or behind.

Inattentive kids have been the bane of teachers since the styllus was put to a wax tablet just as boring teachers have been the bane of kids for the same length of time. I suspect the text messaging habits of kids today are no more or less worse than those notes being passed back and forth when I was a fourth grader (dinosaurs roamed the earth then).

Bemoaning cell phone use makes about as much sense as bemoaning the transition from slateboards and chalk to notebooks and pencils.

As for the joys of D.H.Lawrence – some kids will read everything they get their hands on and will discover the joys of literature without the need for a teacher. It is those kids who won’t find D.H. on their own who need the teacher and whatever the teacher can do to engage them.

avatar Matt Huggins October 15, 2009 at 10:43 am

If I were a teacher, I would be tempted to administer an open “book” essay-oriented exam and make each student choose between using (a) a cell phone or (b) actual books and other written materials.

avatar rex October 15, 2009 at 6:22 pm

I’m with cecelia on this one. If this is the technology that engages kids enough to get a thumbnail of D.H. Lawrence, I don’t see how it is any different than what we did as kids, which was to trot off the library and try and remix the encyclopedia article enough so the teacher thought you didn’t just mail it in. The technology is not the evil here, the lesson plan is, and it is only evil if you are trying to convey a more than a thumbnail of Lawrence.

avatar Jeffrey Polet October 15, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Nothing makes something more insidious than to assume it’s benign. The bill on the narcissism and thoughtlessness we are cultivating in our children has yet to be paid.

avatar Rob O. October 16, 2009 at 1:07 pm

But Rex, I dunno that the technology truly did engage these kids enough to get a thumbnail of D.H. Lawrence. I think it’s more a matter of them just being happy that they get to piddle away their time jacking around with their trinkets & gizmos. I doubt that there was much real takeaway knowledge.

I’m not advocating that we be Luddites, but by the same token, when did students get to start calling the shots? Why are teachers expected to – and applauded for – bend to the whim of their pupils? There’s a line somewhere between embracing new technologies and pandering to the latest trendy thing and at that crossroad, I believe you’ll see learning taking a nasty detour.

Perhaps this where some the entitlement attitude that’s pervading the workplace comes from – Gen X slackers arrive at work and all but announce, “Okay, I’m here, what are you going to do for me now?”

And once again, I’m caused to wonder if just because we CAN do a thing should necessitate that we SHOULD do that thing? There’s little or no evidence that computers in the classroom have boosted scholastic achievement so there’s not a lot to inspire me to believe that cell phones will do so either.

avatar rex October 18, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Rob O. It is difficult to tell what any student takes away from any lesson. (There are many teachers here, and I hope one will stick up for me on this one?) Examining the described practice at the distance of a media article, there is no way of evaluating the effect of the practice on learning. (Again, leaning on the teachers here.) Students shouldn’t call the shots, but if you do not at least try a new thing or two, you are sunk?

I doubt there is little evidence that the ball point pen improved scholastic achievement over the quill, yet it was universally adopted. Certainly fewer pig tails were dipped in ink wells, but I am equally sure there was a craftsmanship that was lost in the production of a document. Pens, printing presses, telephones, radios, TVs, ditto machines, computers, and cell phones are all merely tools. The existence, or use of these tools is neither positive nor negative, it is the application and the intent that matter. Even the lecture was an innovation at some point in time.

I believe we should be Luddites, at least as the original Luddites practiced, we should reject technology that dehumanizes or enslaves. I am going to invoke Ivan Illich here: Anything that deinstitutionalizes education may be a positive force. If kids are gathering information off the web, an uncensored source, and are asked to evaluate its credibility for their own, I see a great potential for growth. It is almost like a conversation. I am not trying to support our cell phone fetish, but I cannot simply dismiss it as wrong because it is not how we learned.

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