tweet tweet. tweedle-lee-dee.

oh, the tragedy.

I sit at the front of the classroom, introducing The Tragedy of Othello, when I see one of my students attempt to stifle a sinister giggle from the the right side of the room.

“Susie (names have been changed to protect the guilty), what are you doing?”  It’s more of a statement than a question, though, because I know what she’s doing.  The tapping finger, the downcast eyes, the angled backpack hoarding the desk space before her.  These are telltale signs.

“Cyberbullying.”  Oh.  We all chuckle because we know she is (mostly) not serious.

And then the classroom erupts into a frenzy of the five Ws (and an H) and frantic digging for phones because of what is happening right now, during fourth period, on Twitter.

I sigh. Clearly, I am not as exciting as Twitter.  I don’t move as fast.  I’m too wordy. Each of my sentences doesn’t end with some witty summative phrase immediately following what used to be known as a “pound key.” I get that part.

But here’s the part I don’t get:  I am a working mother of three and my phone, which is not quite educated enough to be considered “smart”, is tucked safely inside my purse, hidden away in my desk drawer.  The sound is off.  When I remember, I glance at it in the four minutes between classes.  But I don’t always remember.

the phone.  In the five classes I teach daily at a local private high school, there are six students without smartphones.  Six.  Why on earth does a teenager need a smartphone?  If I, a working mother of three, don’t need a smartphone, then why do they?

I’ll tell you why.

They need it for texting (I kind of miss the days when all they did was text).  They need it for Ruzzle.  They need it for Snapchat (Pictures that disappear?  Brilliant idea.  Really. I’m not even going to tell you what teenagers are doing with that.)  They need it for Fun Run.

And when I polled my second period class full of sophomores concerning what, exactly, they use their smartphones for, the answer was a resounding, simultaneous:  “TWITTER!”

Oh, Twitter.  Forget Facebook, my friends (and fellow parents).  They’re over liking and commenting.  They’re tweeting.  And retweeting.

Let me take a moment to say that I’m not some kind technology-and-social-media-hating curmudgeon.  I have a Facebook, I have a Twitter, I have a blog.  But what concerns me as a classroom teacher is the behavior I’m starting to see that seems to be a direct result of the overuse (to put it lightly) of smartphones, of being continuously plugged in.

They can’t keep themselves away.  And though some of them may use this handheld piece of technology appropriately (I had one boy tell me, “I like to use my phone to tweet.  tweet.  read sports articles” — be still my heart!), a great majority of them don’t. They use social media to gossip, to complain about their teachers (and their parents), to arbitrarily use foul language, to cheat on their school work, to post compromising pictures of themselves (I won’t tell you what they’ve shown me), to recount each event of each period of each day.

And they use it to gang up on each other.  To bully.  To be ugly and hateful. Just this week, a few of our girls participated in a Twitter cyberfight, slinging quick and disgusting insults at each other during the school day.  Things they would never say to each other’s faces. Things that would horrify the very people who gave them the smartphones in the first place.  And even though the fight was between two or three girls, the majority of our student body saw the exchange and even went so far as to involve themselves. (I used to work for a principal who told his students that if they stood around and watched a fight happen without doing anything about it, they were just as guilty as the fighters.  In my opinion, this is worse.  The bystanders keep it going.  They promote it by retweeting.)

And even though they’re probably going to hate me for it, I’m going to tell you, parents, that they use it to broadcast all the pieces of their lives that they want to keep from you.

In the minimal research I did for this post, I found enough to make me nervous, as their teacher, and as a parent.  So I told them that.

“You crept, Ms. Lavelle?”

“I did.  I crept.  Did you guys know that your Twitter profiles are basically public?  That even though I don’t ‘follow’ you, I can see what you tweet?”

the boys.  Their eyes widened, not out of concern for the publicness of their lives, but for what I might have seen.

Then one of them said, “But if you make it private, you can’t retweet.” Oh.

The truth is, I love these kids.  But what I’m seeing is starting to get downright scary. Every moment of their existences is fodder for social media, every thought they have needs to be put on display.  Even when some of those things should be kept quiet.  Especially when some of those things should be kept quiet.  How will they ever learn to discern?

The tragic flaw.

“You guys know enough about Shakespeare to know what happens in one of his tragedies.  Othello’s tragic flaw will be his downfall.”

“Hashtagspoileralert, Ms. Lavelle.”

Hashtagsigh.

I suppose, though, that there’s always a glimmer of hope.  That it’s not quite doomsday yet.  I leave you with a recent post made by a former student of mine on Facebook (yes, I’m old, so I still check Facebook):

facebook.  “Lost my phone today.  Thinking about going a semester without one if it doesn’t turn up.  If anyone has to talk to me or contact me for some reason, just Facebook me.  I’ll check it every now and then.”

Yes.  Every now and then.

you down with OCD? (yeah, you know me.)

“I was going to say you’re stupid, but you’re not.”

I exhaled. Loudly. For days, now, she had been doing this. It had been a long week. Georgia and I had come down with a mean sore throat on New Year’s Eve. Teddy was teething and screaming and clingy. Both cars were having trouble. And work had started back up on Thursday.

“I was going to say you’re ugly, but you’re not.”

“Georgia, you need to stop. You can’t say these things.”

“But I just keep having these thoughts. Like I was going to say Jane’s stupid, but she’s not.”

My neck muscles tightened each time she said it, each time I couldn’t get her to stop. On Thursday night, it reached its pinnacle, and I reached my limit. She sat on the tile floor of the kitchen, her knees pulled up to her chest. “I was going to say I hate you, but I don’t.” Her eyes were wide and unblinking. I yelled. I screamed for her to stop. I was inches from her face, and I had her by the arms. But she just kept going.

“I was going to say I don’t love you, but I do. I was going to say I hate you, but I don’t.”

I cried. I didn’t know what else to do, so I cried. I curled up in my bed and I cried. I told her not to talk to me until she could stop saying those awful, awful things.

But that was the problem; she couldn’t stop.

I heard her crying in her bedroom. My husband’s voice was low, almost a whisper. But Georgia’s voice was high-pitched and teary. “I can’t think good thoughts. I’m trying but I can’t.”

She cried until her face was splotched red, and her blue eyes seemed to glow. The hardest part was watching her struggle, watching the sadness take up residence in her face. And to know that there was absolutely nothing I could do. She told me, “Mommy, I love you more than anything.” I held her, I squeezed her, I told her how much I loved her. And when I tucked her in, she said, “I thought of killing you, but it was because you were wearing a disguise.”

“Georgia–”

“No, Mommy. I dreamt it right now.”

“Right now?”

“Yes, when I closed my eyes.”

I sat in the darkness of her bedroom while she slept. I listened to her breathe. She was sleeping deeply, almost snoring. She was exhausted.

So was I.

I thought that I had lost my child, the child I knew. My sweet, smart little girl. Something was very wrong. She had never said anything like this in her six years of life, and now she couldn’t stop. I thought of how difficult her life was going to be from now on. I thought of how different all our lives would be.

At work on Friday morning, I was glad for the distraction. And then my husband sent me a message: “You’re not going to believe this. Look up PANDAS.”

So I did. And of course, the first thing that came up was a Wikipedia site describing the endangered black and white bear. But the second site was this.

I searched through site after site. My eyes moved over the words faster than my mind could process. What if that sore throat had actually been strep? What if that was the source of this sudden compulsiveness?

I called the pediatrician’s office. I knew that I sounded like a crazy person as I described my daughter’s symptoms. My voice wavered as I explained to the receptionist about the downright scary things Georgia had said the night before. And I knew that I sounded desperate when I said that I needed to know if the behavior was linked to the illness, when I said that I didn’t know who else to call.

The receptionist got the nurse, and I explained it all again with the disclaimer, “I know this sounds crazy.” The nurse got the doctor. Yes, the two could be linked.

On Saturday morning, I held her arms again, this time while the physician’s assistant swabbed her throat. I never thought I’d be relieved to hear a doctor say that a test for strep was positive.

So that was it. We had had strep, and I hadn’t known it was strep. (In retrospect, I suppose that I should have. But we’ve never had strep, and by the time I was ready to take her to the doctor, she was feeling better.) And now, after twenty-four hours on antibiotics, she’s acting like herself again. Just like that.

I’m not writing this to be dramatic or woe-is-me. I’m writing it because I had no idea that PANDAS existed, and that must mean that other mothers and fathers don’t know, either. And that maybe, there’s a parent out there right now, Googling desperately in an attempt to figure out what has happened to her child. Perhaps she’ll land here and find a bit of hope.

my girl.

Additional resources:

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/113/4/907.full

http://intramural.nimh.nih.gov/pdn/web.htm

http://www.adhd.com.au/PANDAS.htm