By: Benjamin Conlon
Emma wants a smartphone more than anything. She’s begged her parents for one, but they’ve refused. She tells them she needs it to talk to her friends. She tells them she needs it for homework, and she tells them everyone else has one. They’d like her to have a flip phone for emergencies, but that’s not what she wants. So here is Emma, 13 years old, waking up on a Saturday morning, without a smartphone.
She opens her eyes and stares up at the ceiling. Emma doesn’t realize it, but she is experiencing the kind of solitude that many of her friends already have forgotten. She is disconnected from the outside world, alone with her thoughts. She doesn’t reach instinctively to a nightstand charging station. There is no scrolling through Instagram, no checking Snapchat. She’s unable to watch Tasty videos, or play Candy Crush, or text. Emma probably would be doing those things, but she can’t. And because she can’t, she doesn’t even think to.
Emma gets out of bed a few minutes after waking, much faster than many of her peers. She heads downstairs and finds her ten-year-old brother Michael sitting at the table reading a book. Their father is making pancakes. The pancakes aren’t ready, so Emma needs something to do while she waits at the table.
“Michael,” she whispers.
“Nothing, just wanted to see if you could hear me.”
He goes back to reading.
“Michael,” she whispers again.
Back to reading.
Emma keeps tormenting her brother until, eventually, he complains to his dad. At the same time, he enjoys it. He doesn’t see his older sister as much these days. She goes to a different school. They’ll only be under the same roof for five more years. These interactions are important to Michael. Often, they are the products of Emma’s boredom. Often, they are very brief and insignificant. Over time though, they add up to a lot.
After breakfast, Emma decides to get started on her homework. She can’t find her assignment notebook. She’s forgotten it at school. The other kids didn’t have to copy down the assignment. They took pictures of it with their smartphones. She stomps downstairs and voices her frustration. Her mother shrugs. “I’m sorry to hear that. Can you call a friend?”
“I wouldn’t need the notebook,” she complains, “if I had a phone.”
That’s true. It would be a lot easier if Emma had a phone. But inconvenience is not such a terrible thing for a thirteen-year-old, and this particular inconvenience is one that could be prevented in the future with just a little more attention to detail. On Monday, Emma might forget the notebook again. Or, she might not. Maybe, because of the inconvenience, her memory will sharpen, and she’ll be just a little more prepared than she was on Friday.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asks.
“You’ll have to call a friend.”
This frustrates Emma even more. “If I had a phone, I could just text. That would be way easier.” Again, she’s right. That would be easier. She doesn’t know any of her classmates’ home phone numbers. She talks to them at school and at practice, not on the phone. She could email a friend from the family computer, but she might not get a response.
“I printed the school directory,” her mother says. “It’s on the refrigerator. You can call the Palmers, I know the house number is there.”
Emma doesn’t want to call. She’s nervous. But what choice is there? She takes a deep breath and dials the number. On the third ring, Mr. Palmer answers. “Hello?”
“Hi,” Emma stammers, “is…is Amanda there?”
Mr. Palmer pauses. He’s surprised. This is the first time one of his daughter’s friends has called the house. “May I ask who’s calling?”
Emma cringes. She didn’t know she was supposed to announce herself. “Oh, yes, I’m sorry. This is Emma.”
“Good morning, Emma,” Mr. Palmer says. He knows who she is, but has never spoken to her personally. “How are you?”
“Fine, thank you,” she replies.
“That’s good to hear. Just a minute. I’ll get Amanda.”
Emma breathes a sigh of relief. That wasn’t so bad. She realizes she probably should have asked Mr. Palmer how he was doing, but she can do that next time. The next time there’s a phone call to make, she won’t be quite so nervous. If she’s with her friends and someone needs to call and order food, or flowers, or a limo for prom, maybe Emma will be the one brave enough to do it. She’ll learn from those calls too.
When she has the math assignment, Emma sits down at the kitchen table to work. It’s pre-algebra and it’s not easy. She solves the first few problems and then gets stuck. She tries again. No luck. She shakes her head. There are apps where users can simply take pictures of problems and watch as they’re solved instantly. Everyone uses those apps. She wishes she had a smartphone. Emma calls her mother for help, but her mother hasn’t done pre-algebra in years. She can’t remember much.
“If you took pre-algebra and can’t remember anything about it,” Emma asks, “what’s the point?”
That’s a fair question.
Emma’s mother can’t remember the pre-algebra, but she can remember sitting down and struggling through it every night. She had to struggle through it. There was no smart phone to help her. She was forced to struggle, again and again and again. Every time she worked through something difficult, she got a little stronger. She tells Emma to keep trying.
Instead, Emma walks into the den, ready to look up the solution on the computer. Her dad is busy using it for a work project. “Sorry,” he says. “Mine keeps shutting down.”
She trudges back to the kitchen and looks at the problem again. An hour later, she finally solves it. Crumpled papers scatter the floor. Emma’s pencil is dull, and she’s mentally exhausted. She’s also a little stronger.
Spanish comes next. It’s just as difficult and, like algebra, she doubts she’ll remember it in ten years. Some of her friends speak Spanish. She wishes she could text them for help. Most of the kids have the Google Translate App. They use it for homework. It would make things a whole lot easier for Emma. Instead, she battles through a two-page translation, looking up words in the dictionary and dutifully conjugating each verb. It’s tough going, but with newfound determination, she’s able to finish. In the process, her fortitude increases, just slightly.
Soon it’s time for soccer practice. Emma and Michael hop into the family car and their mom starts off for the fields on the opposite side of town. It’s a long drive and there’s lots of traffic. Emma shakes her head. She’s sitting in a seat doing absolutely nothing when she could be watching a movie on a smartphone. The traffic is making Emma feel bored and annoyed. It’s also making her patient.
She looks outside and starts counting any mailbox that isn’t white or black. There aren’t many. Michael joins in, then their mom. They speculate as to why there isn’t more color variety in mailboxes. In the back of Emma’s mind she knows she could probably look the answer up if she had a phone, but the conversation is kind of fun. They all notice a lot of things around town they hadn’t seen before. There’s some newly built houses, a renovation to the library and a new bank at the corner by the soccer fields.
“Dad will pick you up at 1,” their mother says, when the car stops. “I’m going to the office to catch up on work.” She drives away. The siblings agree to meet by the restrooms after practice.
Emma jogs to one field, Michael to another. After a good workout, things wrap up and they both head to the restrooms. They decide to go in and wash the mud off their hands and knees. The coach assumes they’ve been picked up and leaves. When they come out, everyone is gone. Their father is nowhere in sight.
“Oh no,” Emma groans. “He’s working on that project. I bet he forgot about us.”
Michael looks nervous. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
They have no way of contacting their parents, no way of summoning an Uber, and no way of looking up directions to walk home. They wait a few more minutes and both begin to panic.
Emma remembers the bank across the street and suggests they walk over there. Michael is scared. Emma is too, but she’s older, so she tells her brother it’s going to be all right. She’s the leader. She’s making decisions. She has to. She takes a deep breath, stays calm, and her tolerance for stress rises, ever so slightly.
As they wait for the crossing light, Emma makes up a story about the statue in front of the bank. This makes Michael laugh. The mood lightens, until they arrive and find it’s closed. Michael is getting nervous again, when Emma spots a group of construction workers digging up the pavement a little further down the street. There’s a police cruiser parked behind the workers. The officer is standing in front of his car directing traffic.
“We’re going to ask that policeman if we can use his phone,” she says bravely. They approach the officer. Michael is afraid to speak. So is Emma, but she spoke with Mr. Palmer earlier and that went okay. She musters up her courage, waves politely, and asks to use the phone.
The officer is happy to help. Emma’s dad answers on the first ring. He’s very upset when he hears his daughter’s voice and realizes his mistake. “I’m on my way!” he exclaims. “Let me talk to the officer!” Emma hands the phone back to the policeman. Her father thanks him profusely and explains that he simply lost track of time. The officer is a dad too. His son is on Michael’s team. He’s happy the kids asked for help. His shift ends soon and he insists on driving Emma and Michael home himself. It takes some convincing, but their father eventually agrees.
So, Emma and Michael ride home with the police officer. He lets them hear the siren, just once. And, they become acquainted with someone they would have otherwise never met, someone who might be able to help them in the future. That’s not all they get. They also get a shared memory and a story worth telling. It’s the kind of story, like most good stories, that would have been unlikely with a smartphone in the picture. The best stories come from challenging situations, and smartphones are very good at keeping those at bay. Of course, this adventure may lead to a flip phone for future emergencies, but Emma will probably be okay with that.
A few hours later, Emma heads to bed. She drifts off to sleep in solitude, just as she began the day. She might look the same, and she might feel the same. But she’s not the same. Not exactly. She is a little more patient, a little more resilient, and a little more self-reliant than she was in the morning. She’s a little closer to her brother, a little better at talking to adults and a little more confident in herself. The change is imperceptible, but it’s there.
Now imagine a new day, with another set of struggles, the kind of struggles that smartphones eliminate, and then another day and another day and another. The years will go by, and, to borrow from J.F.K., Emma will develop strength not because things were easy, but because they were hard.
When it comes time for Emma to apply for a college, she’ll be asked on the application, to define herself in a single sentence. She’ll be asked what it is that separates her from other applicants? What makes her more likely to succeed? She’ll write this:
I grew up without a smartphone.
It’s a powerful statement.
Benjamin Conlon is a public school teacher and author of The Slingshot’s Secret, a middle school mystery for anyone trying to find old-fashioned adventure in the digital age. Benjamin grew up in New England and spent much of his childhood exploring the woods surrounding his hometown. After college, he began teaching elementary school. He wrote The Slingshot’s Secret as a reminder that even in a world filled with technology, adventure abounds.
Did you catch Ben’s previous Wait Until 8th post? It is worth a read too!
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