He strolled into the room and quietly laid his books on a desk. Class would begin in about three minutes; soon the teacher would be droning on about something utterly irrelevant to his life. Entirely removed from his surroundings, the small plastic gadgets in his ears piped in the words that resounded repeatedly in his head, chorusing the ideas that he has heard about sex and violence and crime—and women. Vulgarities and obscenities that had always been forbidden in mainstream American media were now a daily part of his life—a ritual—since he was six years old.
He could play that rap refrain in his brain without the assistance of an iPod, one of the most popular play toys known to post-9/11 teenagers. But the iPod somehow gave him power. The iPod increased his status. He had become the latest of the Boomers’ grandchildren to use a technology the Boomers had only dreamed of: music you choose, music you take with you, music you listen to at your whim! American high schools and middle schools, however, have not joined the hippest of all music generations in promoting the iPod craze; very few school officials condone them, allow them, or use them.
The acceptance of iPods in American secondary schools has grown tantamount to the acceptance of the small transistor radios of the 1960s, when kids snuck them into schools in order to hear the World Series (played during the daytime back then). Those radios existed—they were certainly there—but most school officials simply shrugged their shoulders in a quasi acceptance of the new technology of the time. It had become the old, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude. And was listening to the World Series—America’s Pastime, after all—really that bad?
As a teacher, I loathe the use of iPods at school for three main reasons:
1. They disrupt the kids’ concentration. Students should be thinking about what’s happening at school—ideas about algebra, government, and Whitman—not Snoop Dog’s latest bout in jail or Eminem’s most recent confrontation with guns and cops. At the very least, they should be looking at the school’s “Vision Statement”—no one can figure out its significance—that is plastered on the walls of every classroom.
2. They lose them. Bureaucratic nightmares over lost iPods tend to thwart the benefits of being ever-connected to the woes of young convicts who lament about their bitches standing them up and their homies talking shit to them.
3. They scare me. Not literally frighten, but just knowing—or having a good idea—what is being heard in those earphones at any precise moment is enough to rattle my nerves. I might try denying my most subjective assumptions and pretend as though my students were listening to the Righteous Brothers, but I have a feeling I won’t be fooling myself for long.
Okay. I’m probably battering around too severely the presence of portable music devices. After all, we’ve all used them at one time or another; in fact, when I go to the gym, I wear a headset while working out. True, I listen to am radio talk shows that would bore the ever-lovin’ tears out of most teens; and, true, a huge antenna juts in the air off the front of the headset making me look like a Martian—but I do wear a headset. I’ve told my students that while they’re in my classroom, they’re not allowed to even show me an iPod (or other such contraption) before, after, or during class, unless it has one of those pointy antennas.
Naturally, they laugh. But I’m serious.
The newest technology has been both a boon and a bust for modern educators. Seeming to compromise the effectiveness of educators, some of the most modern advances have presented thorny challenges. Technology has always presented an enigma, a whole series of contradictions, paradoxes, and hypocrisies: for example, one of the most amazing advances of modern man has been the invention of the automobile. Who can imagine today’s world without cars? Besides pleasure transportation, the entire economy now depends on materials being transported by vehicles on wheels; yet, a couple million Americans have been killed in automobile crashes since the early 1900s. In the last decade, 10,000 more teens died in the United States in car crashes than members of the military who died during the entire ten years of the Vietnam War.
On a micro level, consider modern teenagers: I’ve thought really hard about this, and I can’t remember too many advances in pop culture technology—except for television, of course—that had affected teenagers prior to the advent of VHS and CD players. The needle on the record player served my generation just fine, but in the late seventies, the old needle-driven Victrola began to wane with the arrival of the new eight-track tape systems. From this time forward, technology—especially related to the media and communication—has sped at such a breathtaking pace, many other old codgers haven’t caught up either.
And when writing about the iPod—or merely discussing it with fellow teachers—that is exactly what I feel like: an old codger.
My students laugh at me when I tell them my views on music technology. Back in the seventies, when stereo first became a big deal, I had said, “Hmm … I’m not sure if I like that sound.” “Why?” the seventies kids had asked incredulously. “Well, there’s something to be said for music that filters through only one speaker. The sound is more solid, fuller; in fact, for my old doo-wop records, I like the scratchy sound the record player produces. Without the scratchy sound, it just wouldn’t be the same.” Which, of course, was the point for these kids. They didn’t want it to be the same! The same was out. Stereophonic music bellowed all over the school. In those days, if you weren’t “stereo,” you were a total geek; homosexuals in the Marine Corps received nicer treatment.
As the modern machines sounded truly better, my arguments for the old mono sounds echoed hollow. I could no longer justify not using at least an eight-track tape player; I even bought a car, a brand new Mercury Cougar, with an eight-track! How I beamed with self-assigned coolness every time I inserted one of those oversized tapes into the huge insert slot near the bottom of the tape deck! My semi-mastery of modern music technology gave me my hippest moments as a high school teacher; after all, I was using their machines to play my music! And what could be hipper than that? Some of my students—who then were not much younger than I—even liked the same musicians: Gordon Lightfoot, Dan Fogelberg, and Cat Stevens. We not only shared in the technology for playing the music, we had the same tastes in music, as well! What a glorious time!
Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up: not with music, not with technology, and not with teenagers’ voracious appetites for new things. They rapidly progressed from the tape deck to the CD player’s multisystem sounds world, while I still tinkered with my record player, hoping I could catch Radio Shack at just the right time for a new needle; unfortunately, Radio Shack stopped storing those needles, and I once again was left behind in the technology boom.
Maybe that’s been the source of my hostility toward the iPod. I don’t know how to put the music on the dang thing to begin with, let alone play it when I go to the gym! While I’m with my wife and kids, listening to an iPod would be a definite no-no. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
I am definitely an old dog.
And these are definitely new tricks.
By Bruce J. Gevirtzman, author of An Intimate Understanding of America’s Teenagers: Shaking Hands with Aliens