I love it when irate readers demand to know exactly what university was foolish enough to bestow a journalism degree on someone like me. Though I often issue a response like, Vito’s Auto Body Emporium and School of Slander, the truth is, I ain’t got one! If it makes you feel better, I did get an A in my lone journalism class at Loyola University of Chicago. (Go, Ramblers!)
Some of you are probably shaking your heads right now and muttering something along the lines of, “so that explains it!”
Yes! I left that vaunted lakefront institution with a BA in psychology and minors in theology and sociology. Folks still chide me for those esoteric choices, but I don’t regret a single second of it. There’s something completely captivating about carefully observing and analyzing my fellow human beings’ behavior.
And I do it everywhere I go. If you see me sitting in the City Council chambers, I’m far more interested in observing the dynamic than what’s being said at the podium. The body language, the furtive glances between aldermen, and the level of tension always tells you so much more.
But given my sons’ ages, the study that’s captivated me this year is the herding habits of middle and high school students at school bus stops. That morning mile dog walk provides plenty of opportunity to make some serious scientific observations.
Though we’re only talking a small sample size—four stops—considering the commonalities, I think I have enough data to share some results.
The most interesting thing about the younger group is their propensity to believe their coolness quotient is inversely proportionate to the amount of clothing they wear on a cold spring day. Apparently, if you can saunter up to the bus stop in shorts and a T-shirt without shivering on a 40-degree morning, then the world is your oyster.
Of course, it's the boys who are prone to this display of dominance and, once infected, it became a running battle to get my seventh-grade son to wear any kind of spring jacket. Maybe I’m getting old, but I’d rather be warm than cool!
Then, for some unknown reason, these middle schoolers feel the need to turn their bus stop arrival time into a daily competition. Apparently there’s some value to being the first one there. I’ve seen victory dances that would put an NFL wide receiver to shame.
Despite their peculiar behavior, at least this sixth- to eighth-grade group still socializes with each other. Though the conversation inevitably breaks down along gender lines, with each group staking out its own territory, they do seem to genuinely enjoy seeing each other every morning.
It’s just the opposite for the high schoolers. The competition there is to see who can test the good graces of the bus driver by making a mad dash for the punctual yellow vehicle at the very last moment.
I’ve witnessed some 100-meter dashes that would put Usain Bolt to shame. Apparently there’s some value to being the last one on the bus. A grand entrance perhaps?
But while the middle schoolers quickly coalesce into their cohesive conversational units, with rare exception, the high school bus stop students completely ignore each other. Perhaps it’s some sort of defense against standing out on a cold street corner at 7 in the morning, but it’s unsettling to watch.
It's like something right out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. They stand in sullen rows, cell phones thrust forward, as they thumb through their virtual worlds, completely oblivious to anything or anyone around them.
Sometimes I feel a desperate urge break them out of their Orwellian slumber with a simple hello, but the fear of having them turn on me like a pack of feral wolves disturbed from their prey always prevents me from doing so.
And it’s not like these kids are strangers, either. They may not be best friends, but they did grow up in the same small area of the neighborhood.
When wiser men and women warned us, unless we were careful, the virtual world would supplant this one, I thought they were nothing more than a bunch of nervous Nellies. Remember when Rock ‘n' Roll was gonna be the end of us? I figured, as Mr. Mellencamp told us, “ … the human desire to have you come near” would always win out.
But now I’m not so sure.
What I can tell you is, this is why I despise cell phones, abhor Facebook and consider texting to be an abomination. Maybe this digital reality makes it easier for high schoolers to control and moderate input in a world moving at light speed, but I shudder to think what this long-term dependence on digital communication will ultimately do to us.
It would seem like social media is making us anything but.