My last class of the day can be a handful. There are a lot of strong personalities in there. And by the time I see them, the torpor of lunch digestion has given way to the giddiness of after-school rendezvous anticipation. There is a lot of time spent on me reminding them, with alternating politeness and sarcasm, that they are in my class to acquire skills and credits and not to socialize and gossip.
So, I have always appreciated R. She is quiet and smiles shyly at me from the front corner where she sits. Whenever I change the seating chart, I keep R near me, so she will not get lost in the sea of her more boisterous classmates. She does her work. A second-language learner, she does not write perfectly, but she is diligent and honest. I help her with her vocabulary words. When I give quizzes, I stop to remind her that she can do this, that she is smart.
Maybe that is why I never stopped her from keeping that one headphone in her ear, nearly hidden by her shiny hair. How could I begrudge her apparent desire to tune out the gratuitous noise of her peers? She is always bent over her assignments. She is always on task.
Then one day I noticed her lips moving as she worked on her essay. I watched closely. Was this a symptom of her English acquisition? No. I came to realize she was TALKING ON THE PHONE. Not loudly, not obviously, but constantly. She was conversing with someone while she finished her assignment.
I wrote, “Do not ever take phone calls in my class again,” on a Post-It note and put it on her desk. She looked up, with apparent chagrin, and seemed to acquiesce.
Until yesterday, when I caught her doing it again.
Normally, I would be angry. But I know a few things about R. I know she has a boyfriend who is omnipresent in her life. I know because she has written about him. I know because she has texted him every day in my class, despite my best efforts to stop her. I know because there was an issue last fall, where we had to have him banned from campus. See, he is an adult and he was coming to stand beside her every moment while she was on her lunch.
Now she spends her lunch standing against a wall, chatting with him by phone instead.
And he drives by all the time, just checking up, I guess. I have heard his car. She has verified that the speed racer with the souped up engine and the lack of muffler is him.
And she told her history teacher she could not sit in the seat he assigned her, because she does “not want to sit next to other boys.”
So, when I caught her talking in class it just seemed like the next logical step. This man wants to control every aspect of her life, so now he is apparently taking her classes with her, too. I started finding reasons to look in on her other classes during my prep. There she is, headphone in. There is little doubt in my mind that he is with her electronically during those periods as well.
Her parents seemed unconcerned. When another teacher called home about her continuous texting and phone use, her mother said, “Yes, she is just like that at home, too!” Her parents know he has given their daughter a separate phone, one with which she can communicate exclusively with him. This does not bother them
It bothers me. But what can I do? I asked some other English teachers and discovered this is not an isolated phenomenon. Other teachers have caught girls Skyping and FaceTiming with their boyfriends during class. They do the work. They pay attention. They just do it all while their boyfriends sit there watching them.
This freaks me out. Domestic abuse is nothing new. Teenage girls with over-controlling boyfriends are nothing new. But the fact that technology has made it possible for these girls to be linked in to these guys every minute of the day is terrifying.
There is no opportunity for these girls to be individuals, to form social bonds outside of their romantic entanglements. One girl told me earlier this year that her boyfriend does not like her to have Facebook or Instagram, because he does not like her to have other friends, even virtually.
And that is dangerous. High school is the time in a girl’s life when social concerns have preeminence. If girls do not have friends now, where can they turn if, as is likely, these relationships go sour? Who will they have to help them out of these unhealthy and co-dependent relationships? What memories will they have of adolescence other than the time they spend with these dudes?
Teenage girls are forming their identities. And the phones in their pockets now make it more possible than ever for their identities to be formed solely around their attachments to their boyfriends. The devices they use are like electronic dog collars, ensuring that these girls never stray too far from the men who control them. If a boyfriend is possessive enough to want to listen to me lecture on the standards for reading informational text, then what aspects of her life do not concern him? My guess is none.
And that is truly unsettling.