Day Nineteen: Collective Private Messages

During the drill-and-kill standardized testing week, I have students write one positive note for each student in the class.  I then compile the notes into one larger letter and add my own personal note to the mix.  It’s the offline version of a private message, but it’s a collective one; a choir of affirmation in the often dark and lonely void of adolescent life.

Eighth grade was tough for me. I was geeky and lonely and convinced that everyone in the world mattered more than me.  Externally, I was a “good kid,” but inside I moped around like My So-Called Life.  So here I am. I write each note, remembering the quasi-athletic geeky eighth grader who was too scared to go to a friend’s funeral after she had committed suicide.  I write the notes, knowing that if I so badly needed to be affirmed, not just in what I had accomplished, but in who I was as a person, then perhaps a few of my students need the same thing.

However, as I pass out the positive notes, kids quietly tuck them into their backpacks and say nothing.  As I pick up the classroom for one last time, I notice two notes left on the ground.  Another one is crumpled in the recycle bin.  That’s over ten percent of my class that didn’t care. Get over it.  Maybe private messages aren’t important after all.

It strikes me that the real barrier to the medium of Facebook is not the medium, but the human element.  It’s the fear and the insecurity and the way we fail to affirm because we are scared of it being crumpled in a recycle bin or deleted with a click of a blue button.

*     *     *

“Do you still do the positive note at the end of the year?” a student asks me on instant message.

“Yeah,” I respond.

“That note saved my life.  I was going through a hard time.  It was the first time I got a C and I was just coming to terms with being gay and no one in my life it felt like was pointing out anything good in me,” she writes.

“Thanks.  I’m glad the affirmation helped,” I respond.

“I don’t think I was really suicidal.  I had no intention of ending my life.  But at the time I thought about it,” she explains.

“I’m glad you’re still around,” I add.

“Thanks.  I just thought you should know that those notes are powerful.”

“That feels good to hear,” I tell her.

It’s a short chat message that could only happen on Facebook. Sure, she could visit in person, but Facebook provides just enough space to be deeply personal without being weird.

*     *     *

Another chat box pops up right as this one ends.  “Hey Mr. Spencer, I got accepted for political science at UCLA.”

“Very cool.”

“A lot had to do with what i learned in 8th grade your class provided the spark without it I would’ve never been interested thx for everything; all the exposure to problems in the community and all the social injustice out there.”

“I remember you saying that you got really involved in immigrant issues.”

“I think I want to go into immigration law or maybe politics.”

I expected, today, to write about how in-person positive notes are so much more personal and profound than those on Facebook.  Instead, I’m feeling the rare moment in this experiment when the two online and offline versions don’t matter as much as the power in the personal connection.  It’s easy, as a teacher, to believe the lie that I’m not making a difference.  I see incomplete stories, based upon a year with my students.  However, with Facebook, I get to see the larger narrative play out in status updates and chats and posts on my wall.

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