Even though I celebrated a major milestone birthday this year, I don’t feel that old, except when I stop to consider the major technological changes that have swept through my lifetime. It’s a little disconcerting, even a little depressing, when the T-shirts of my day are touted as “vintage,” when other fashion trends have come and gone several rounds (I won’t admit how many times I’ve seen the resurgence of the mini!), when household items I grew up with are extinct or considered quaint. What’s a victrola? That’s what my music teacher wheeled into the classroom to teach us new songs. Also know as a variation on the record player, it’s mind-boggling to consider that today’s kids don’t even know what that is, since music delivery systems have evolved many times over since that device constituted a piece of furniture in our homes.
I grew up without a microwave. I learned the QWERTY keyboarding system on a typewriter, which nowadays might show up at yard sales and thrift stores as amusing time pieces. I watched F-Troop, the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family on a black and white television, and we celebrated when we finally became a “VCR family” sometime in the 1980s, though it happened in our house much later than anyone else’s in our neighborhood. We had one phone in our house, and it was a rotary phone, the kind with the dial that you had to stick your finger through, the kind Pottery Barn has been selling in recent years as “retro.”
Many of us baby boomers remember with fondness the original “Back to the Future” movie of 1985, starring a young Michael J. Fox who time travels to the past and experiences the unnerving yet revelatory adventure of meeting his young parents while knowing what their future will hold. All of these vintage and retro features popping up in our lives today remind us that though the future is now, the past is very much part of the present.
Take Back-to-School night at Community Middle School this week, which had a complete sense of deja vu for me, since the third and last child is on the same team big sister had eight years ago. Three of his four teachers are the same, though I had the definite discombobulating sensation of time travel. Here were the same lockers; here were the same hallways and the classrooms. Physically, little had changed inside the school, and yet, here we all were, eight years older, the girl standing in the back row in the class picture still up on the homeroom bulletin board now a college junior, her classmates flung far to all parts of the world.
Technology has changed the very essence of Back-to-School night as well. In the “olden” days, we gathered in the auditorium to be greeted by school administrators and guidance counselors, then we scattered to the classrooms to meet the teachers. This year, the efforts of the school district to “go green” and to move almost everything to a new level of technology showed big time. The new principal talked to us via video piped into every classroom, and we learned of school activities and upcoming events. We heard from the heads of the Parent Teacher Student Association the same way. While the technology was interesting, the result was less than the sum of the parts — I wasn’t the only parent who thought it was impersonal and devoid of heart. Technology is wonderful, and we appreciate the hard work that went into the creation of the presentation, but there was something lacking and I call it soul.
The school district website is an impressive piece of work, which promises to cut down on paper consumption and save thousands of trees, simply by posting every flyer that used to go home in the backpacks online. The only tricky thing is remembering your passwords and IDs, but now you can be linked on the information superhighway of school and not lose a beat in the process.
While this is all fine and dandy, nothing can replace the rapport a parent and student build with a teacher in person; nothing can beat the presence of a parent in the school and classroom helping out with events and fundraisers. Back to the future as far as the school system goes means incorporating all the good that technology brings with the old-fashioned people contact that will always make the world go round, no matter how far technology takes us.
Back in the “olden” days, I remember the chatter that some day, technology would allow us to call our loved ones and talk to them via video, so we could see them live. This has come to be in the form of “Skype” among other channels, and for this family, that’s just in the nick of time. The oldest, the CMS graduate, is now in Paris on junior semester abroad, and in the first couple of days of her arrival there, I received a text message from our phone service provider informing me that she had already racked up more than $100 in roaming charges with her cell. We quickly put the kibosh on that, and now, thanks to Skype, we can now talk via video, apparently free of charge, I am told. (Though I am a bit skeptical, I haven’t seen a bill to prove otherwise.)
Some kids are taking this free service for all it is worth. Another mother tells me that her daughter, in Beijing on junior semester abroad, had her turn the computer screen to the television so she could watch her beloved Giants play live from across the world. Too bad the Giants didn’t work as well as the technology did, but it is indeed an amazing, brave new world.