By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 24, 2008
T he kid knows no boundaries. But neither does the adult. The high school senior is so lost in a hyper-public, YouTube world that he thinks nothing of forwarding a private phone call to the entire planet. The wife of the Fairfax County schools administrator the kid called at home is understandably miffed about the invasion into her private sphere, yet she returns fire with a shockingly disproportionate blast of rage.
Every once in a while, a story confronts us with just how deeply divided we are -- and how little we realize it. In Washington Post reporter Michael Alison Chandler's tale of how Lake Braddock Secondary School senior Devraj Kori called the chief operating officer of the Fairfax system to ask why schools weren't shut during last week's light snowfall, there are no good guys. There is only a confrontation with the gulfs that separate digital kids from analog parents and new concepts of community from old notions of responsibility.
No one in a story like this sees himself as having done wrong. When Kori called administrator Dean Tistadt's home number to voice his opinion that school ought to be closed, he thought he was standing up for himself and his fellow students, just as adults often encourage kids to do. The idea that he crossed a line by calling an adult's home is an alien concept to people who chronicle their every social encounter on Facebook or MySpace. "We are the cellphone generation," Kori said. "We are used to being reached at all times."
Or as a reader on http://washingtonpost.com put it, "Who has a home phone anymore?"
Nor would someone who thinks like that pause before posting on YouTube the intemperate response he received to his adolescent plea for a snow day.
Similarly, when Candy Tistadt returned Kori's call and left a message referring to the students her husband serves as "snotty-nosed little brats" and urged Kori to "Get over it, kid, and go to school!" she could not have imagined that her righteous tirade would be enshrined on the Web and on Page One of The Washington Post.
"It used to be you could have an inappropriate or rude conversation with someone, and it would stay private," says Ron McClain, director of the Parkmont School in the District and the parent of teenagers in the Montgomery County schools. "There's a much fuzzier line between public and private now. This is a case where the technology has outpaced our ability to cope with its effects. As parents, we're way behind."
At home and at work, McClain says, he sees "boundaries dissolving. I send my kid a text message, and I expect an answer at the end of the day, but I hear right back, while he's in English class. I didn't mean for that to happen, but for kids, that's how they converse. They don't leave their friends like we did to go home to your family and your homework. Their conversations just keep going, all through the night."
In the Fairfax case, the kid was clearly out there. Blame technological change all you want, but even today, most teens wouldn't dare call a school administrator at home. Heck, most teens I know consider phone conversations as enticing as a bowl of anthrax. When it comes to speaking to anyone in authority, if they can't type it, they'd rather not say it. Kori was out to press some buttons.
So this is as much a matter of etiquette as digital revolution. Some readers think Kori will get his in a few years, when he's on the job market. Employers will Google him and toss his r¿sum¿ in the trash, one online commenter said. "Technology bytes both ways, kid."
That may be an overly optimistic reading. "That kind of chutzpah may reward him in a culture where people value that kind of cheeky behavior," McClain says.
Heaven help us. Or maybe teachers can still help. Julie Good, who runs a program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville that trains students interested in being teachers, agrees that boundaries have shifted but says that teachers who move in step with young people will usually be rewarded with civil and appropriate behavior.
"I give my kids my cellphone, my office phone, my home phone, my three e-mails and my Facebook," she says. "This is a 24-7 job, and I've never had a problem with kids abusing it." As for the YouTube posting in the Fairfax case, "Hey, it's called freedom of speech," Good says, reminding me that "at this age, impulse control hasn't kicked in fully."
Teachers these days must come to terms with seeing their performance scored on http://RateMyTeachers.com and having their in-class comments recorded on cellphone videos and posted on the Web.
"There is no privacy," Good says. "I had that lesson seared into me very early. I was teaching elementary school in the '60s and said something in class about the Vietnam War, and I had a parent call me out. Nothing has changed, except that you can disseminate it via YouTube."
If Tistadt "had just said, 'Thank you for your call; I'll share this with my husband,' that would have been the end of it," Good says. "We all have a breaking point, but you can't break anymore without the rest of the world knowing about it."
The tools may be new, but the basics stay the same: Teens will use lousy judgment, and adults will have a choice: Let kids make mistakes even as you set and enforce clear boundaries, or leave them to wander like lost souls and then pay the consequences when a Devraj Kori grows up to become a Candy Tistadt.
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