Friends Forever: From "Prison" Through a Lifetime

By Terry Calhoun

It’s often said, and I agree, that most high schools look as much like prisons as they do anything else. The fact that many high school students feel like they’re in prison is ironic.

My youngest daughter is graduating today from a high school that d'esn’t look like a prison, and d'esn’t (most of the time, for most students) feel like one, either. The other two high schools in town are quite large and do look like prisons. But my daughter’s school is a small, 425-student “alternative” high school where the students call teachers by their first names and there are no such silly rules as “you can’t wear a hat inside the school,” or “you can’t leave the property at lunch,” or “no electronic devices in school at any time.”

The latter “rule,” is so moronic. Not just because cell phones, PDAs, laptops, iPods, etc. are essential to students nowadays, but because it is so generic a fiat. After all, whatever the students are using for timekeeping is also probably an “electronic device.”

It’s typical high school administrative control; make a rule so loose and vague, and make it dependent on any adult-in-authority’s snap judgment, and you render invalid upon inception any student dispute. How prison-like. This helps to explain why there is a “lottery” to get into the small school each year, with many times as many applicants as there are spots.

Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) are not leading edge in the use of technology. I won’t go into detail, but given that AAPS surrounds the University of Michigan, the paucity of information technology tool use in instruction, administration, and communication is an embarrassment. Long after other school districts began sharing information on well-designed Web sites, AAPS’s site had little information on it and was designed and maintained by a volunteer parent. It still refuses to use e-mail for mass communication with parents. (They might get responses and have to cope with that.)

Ah, but away from my anarchistic tendencies and on to graduation.

Most high school students in Ann Arbor spend huge amounts of their home and social life interfaced with cell phones, PDAs, computer, digital cameras, and iPods. They are well-connected to each other in the virtual world. Mostly, that gets stripped away when they go to school. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe if it weren’t, it would be too easy to direct comparisons with what the students brought in with them, and what there is – or, mostly is not – already there in the prison. I mean school.

When I graduated from high school in 1965, the only ways we had to communicate outside of face-to-face once my friends and I scattered to college campuses all over the place and later to Vietnam, were (expensive) long-distance phone calls, snail-mail, and Western Union.

Since I moved away and have never really been back except for an occasional holiday, I’ve completely lost touch with my high school friends. The graduates of today, including my daughter, maybe don’t realize how wonderful it is, but they have the ability to maintain close contact with their current friends and acquaintances throughout their entire lives. I envy that, and of course they don’t realize it. They already take their IT as a part of the world that has always been there for them.

I wonder what it means for their lives and the new friends and acquaintances they will make in college, work, and beyond. Will their lives be enriched by keeping a close circle of friends, decade after decade? If so, will that close contact satisfy their friendship needs and thus reduce their inclination to make new friends? Wasn’t there a study once that claimed you could only keep fairly close to a total of about 100 friends and acquaintances?

Judging from the experience so far of my oldest daughter, who has now graduated from college and is in the work world, all of this IT will enrich their early friendships and will not reduce their inclination to make new friends. In fact, old friends and new can mix and learn to know each other in ways that would have been flatly impossible a decade ago or more ago.

I envy that. I didn’t really enjoy high school and don’t miss that crowd very much – even though my alma mater has the most comprehensive alumni organization in the U.S. However, I would love to still be in touch with my college, graduate school, and law school friends and I am convinced that I would be – if the Internet had happened a decade or two earlier. Darn it.

But I also gain from it, especially with my family. (Although last week my wife’s company blocked IM and I no longer have her presence on my desktop all day long at work. It’s amazing how empty that space seems.) My son, who dropped out of college a year ago, saved a lot of money last winter and he’s off in the fifth week of a 4-month long disc golf tour which will take him to Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, California, Texas, and the Georgia (and places in between) for large tournament competition. (So far he has a 1st place, two 2nd places, and one 3rd.)

While living at home, he was a hermit. We barely saw him as he worked a lot of nights, and rarely had a conversation. Now, we’re in touch several times a day via e-mail, IM, Web postings, and cell phone. And my extensive network of friends and acquaintances in the sport is interacting with him face-to-face while interacting with me virtually! (He called as I was putting the finishing touches on this. He’s in Kansas City and he just described the course he played today as the toughest he’s ever seen.)

I’m starting to enjoy MySpace, also. I get alerts when my oldest daughter posts a blog, and earlier this week she actually posted my last column for IT Trends in her blog, for her friends. And some of her friends are now my “friends” in MySpace, even though I’ve never met them.

My mother is up from eastern Ohio for this graduation. This will be her third graduation ceremony at Community High School, and she enjoys them a lot. Every graduating senior gets a moment to speak. The students wear whatever they wish to the ceremony. At the last one we attended with her, the young woman who won the award for “personifying the spirit of Community High School” received it wearing a large, orange and black, six-legged costume.

My mother and I don’t really know each other very well anymore, even though we are similar in many respects. I’ve been away too long and she’s got something like 25 grandkids and great-grandkids nearby to keep her busy. But I now anticipate that distance will not happen between my children and me. We’ll be able to be close, no matter where they go. And they will keep their old friends and gain new ones. That’s just wonderful.

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