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.

Day Seventeen: Instant Messages

I like the Facebook Chat function. It’s as if I can walk into a room and silently choose from a friend menu without potentially alienating the others. I’m not in the mood to talk shop, so I’ll go with my overly political friend and geek out about government. I like the way that I can turn on the offline button as well. It’s like a passive-agressive Harry Potter invisibility cloak for my cyber self.

For all the talk of being present and the layers of communication lost in a text-bound medium, I’ve had meaningful conversations with past friends, distant acquaintances and fellow teachers at some of the most random times imaginable. Thus a lonely Thursday transforms from a chance to watch an Office re-run to an opportunity for funny, ironic or serious conversation through the streaming text of a mini-box on a Facebook page. And, like a book, where I am able to imagine the characters and setting, I get a chance to be with someone while still imagining the story as it unfolds.

So, where at church holding our pens and our sermon handouts. The sermon is solid, but I’m distant and moody and not particularly excited about God. I’ve been busy lately and though I don’t think he’s angry, I still have this residual sense that he’s a little disappointed and thus things will be awkward at first. More than that, it’s a morning of doubt where I want to feel rather than think that God is real.

The chat starts out small. I scribble a cynical line in my clunky, barely legible handwriting. Christy responds with her beautiful script offering a beautiful reply that corrects without shaming. And so it begins. Imperfect lines of imperfect lines meandering crookedly around the reminders of VBS and Women’s Bible Study and please lift up so and so in your prayers even though we, as a congregation aren’t typically prone to levitation.

We both say some of the kindest words that we rarely say face-to-face. But I can see her smile. And now I’m thinking about God and it’s not awkward and I’m not feeling guilty and more importantly God feels real. And that’s the beauty of instant message. It’s like finding redemption at a McDonalds or finding hope at a Wal-Mart. It’s the sense that a medium of tedium can be transformed into something profound if we’re open to it.

Day Sixteen: Write a Note

Snail mail.  Sloppy and slow. Letters lost. The perpetually imperfect. An archaic relic to the days when words were limited to geography. And if communication is a race, the postal service is doomed.  But if conversation is like a meal, I’ll take a slow-cooked dinner over fast food fare on almost any evening. Online messages are cheap.  This isn’t to say that the conversation isn’t meaningful, but the medium itself costs little to the user.  A simple glimpse at my Spam file suggests that there’s either an online conspiracy to enlarge my privates or just about anyone can instantly contact just about anyone else with little effort.

I’m a quick thinker and a fast typer, so the instant connection of social media feeds this sense of urgency in conveying ideas.  Better post to the blog, update the Facebook status, send out a tweet, respond to the e-mail and check the Google Reader so that I don’t miss anything.

Slow down.

I sketch out a cartoon of Jesus and principal with the caption, “Son of Man or not, you need to do a word wall.”  Then, I begin hand-writing a note, Facebook-style, with a few people I’m going to “tag.”  I start with Alan, because he’s Canadian and Canada tends to get left out of things.  The letters look sloppy.  Imperfect.  Slow.  I can’t tip-tap my way through my thoughts.

Slow down.

I’m thinking differently now, more fluidly with each word.  I’m more careful about my mistakes, knowing that it’s sealed in ink.  I’m guessing the spelling sucks.  There aren’t any red lines warning me that I sound illiterate at the moment.  See that right there? I wouldn’t be able to pull off a word like “illiterate” in writing without second-guessing how it’s spelled.

I fold the paper into thirds, place it into the envelope and lick the enveloping, sealing its fate with my saliva.  I forgot about the ritual of letters.  I forgot about the steps required in a world with no send button.  And that’s the magic of it. Whether it’s the sloppy handwriting or the slippy ineffeciency of postal service, it’s the slow, imperfect experience that makes it feel authentic.