So I love teaching.
Getting to hang out with teenagers all day is hilarious and ridiculous and exhausting and poignant and wonderful and everything in between.
And I super love it.
However, because I have taught the same ages more or less every year, I inevitably found myself in a strange sort of reality, one where it seemed like time was standing still. I certainly don’t feel any older, and so for a while in those early years of my teaching career, it kind of seemed like everything was the same from when I was an adolescent, and I lived in this magical little world where Destiny’s Child was still together and maybe I would run into Julia Stiles on the street and play it very cool while telling her that I had seen 10 Things I Hate About You about a thousand times and she would think that was cool and not weird/creepy and would want to be my friend.
That kind of strange reality.
Well, that all came crashing down some six or so years ago, when I realized that time, most irritatingly, did not actually answer to my beck and call and that my era, my “coming of age,” and the zenith of my youth was now someone else’s past. In the same way I might have watched a John Hughes movie with a mildly detached curiosity and a (failed) attempt to demonstrate how cool and cultured I was about life in the 80s, my students would now watch Clueless and Sister, Sister with the same detached curiosity, like visiting a shell museum or wondering how photosynthesis works.
And it all started…innocuously enough…in a yearbook room…
:::cue flashback sequence with 90s ripple effect and appropriate wind chimes:::
The day itself I remember with shell-shocked clarity. I had taught some reading skillz. Taught some grammar. Taught some lit. You know, getting my Michelle Pfeiffer on (it’s a flashback sequence…let me have that one).
Then I meandered over to my yearbook classroom, a “tastefully small” room that managed to hold six desktop computers and had enough space to walk about six steps in a straight line and then turn back around. It was the last period of the day and a glorious chance to kick back with some high school students and leave the hormone volcanoes that were my middle schoolers to someone else.
About halfway through, one of my students – we’ll call him “Dwayne” in honor one of my favorite shows of all time – leaned back thoughtfully, modeling the introspective pose of one who might be contemplating the finer aspects of Byron’s poetry or pondering the great mysteries of an ever-expanding universe.
So this kid leans back and he says four little words that changed my life forever:
“Ms. Fox, what’s a beeper?”
My head snapped up from the screen of another student I was working with. “What?”
“Like, a beeper. Like, how did it work?”
At first, I thought he was messing with me. I think I even made a Punk’d reference (which he didn’t get). But then other students’ heads started popping up curiously. They too, it seemed, had questions about this Great and Mysterious Artifact, Given to Us by the Ancients, the “Beeper.”
So I started out, demonstrating along the way “Well…it was a little box, like so, and it had a number. And you’d call the number, punch in your number, and then the other person would call you back.”
“I don’t get it.”
“No, it was really simple," I continued. "Like you leave your number after you call the beeper, like an old-school voicemail or something, and then that person would know to call you back, at that number.”
“Oh? Like a text message?”
“Yes!” I seized upon that sliver of recognition with voracious ambition. “It was actually really cool, you know? Cause the numbers could also be little codes, right? ‘143’ meant ‘I love you’ and ‘911’ was ‘call me back right away’ and you could write ‘hello’ upside down using numbers too!”
Dwayne’s brow pinched in and one girl tilted her head and stared at me suspiciously. The rest of the conversation tragically went like this:
Dwayne: Why didn’t you just, like, use letters for your messages?
Me: Umm…we didn’t have letters.
Dwayne: I don’t understand.
Me: ...Numbers. We only had numbers. It was just a phone keypad. Which only has numbers. No letters. Just numbers. I mean, there were tiny letters underneath each number on old phones, but you couldn't send those letters to someone, just numbers.
Dwayne (blinks): So why didn’t you just call your friend?
Me (pauses): ...My friend didn’t have a phone. She had a beeper. We didn’t have cell phones. That was the point of the beeper. To get them to call us.
Dwayne: … I don’t get it.
At this point, a slightly hysterical tinge had entered my voice. I wasn’t just explaining (poorly) the beeper; I was now defending what had been my very way of existence. The conversation ended like this:
“Guys! Beepers were cool! I promise!”
Blank stares. I pressed on, voice rising.
“No but for real! They were cool! The 90s were cool! I was cool! Guys! Come on!”
At some point, Dwayne lost interest in my futile blatherings and the other kids turned back to their screens. One girl smiled pitifully at me and patted me awkwardly on the back.
That’s when my strange reality exploded into a thousand tiny, pixelated pieces. Aldous Huxley’s words had sprung to life – albeit in moderately different circumstances, of course. In my brave, new world, I was trapped in a dark and terrifying vortex, some version of high school where questions like “What’s a VCR?” and “Who’s Captain Planet?” swirled around and around and around…forever….
At first, I tried to fight it. I tried to regale the kids with the wonders of Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” (“Was that before she was married to Nick Cannon?”). I sang the Saved by the Bell theme song with gusto (“Kelly Ka-who?”). I unashamedly gave Independence Day my vote of confidence (“Wait, I know this one. Paul Revere.”). And on. And on. And on.
But to no avail.
After deep reflection throughout that year (and several tear-streaked glasses of wine), I surrendered.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not some sort of technological Luddite. This new millennium has brought me The Office and Adele and FaceTime and the first Step Up movie. Thank you, new millennium.
But I will still hold on to the film and television and music of the 90s with a vice-like, death grip. And one day, when my grandchildren ask me, “Grandmama (because my life goals include being just like the Dowager Countess), where were you when Justin Timberlake had frosted tips?” – I will know.
I will know.