I work in the medical library at nights. Sometimes the stillness is so complete that I have to stand up and look around to see if there are people at tables or computers. My gaze usually lands on one or two students with an expression of numbness as they stare unflinchingly at the computer screen. Poor souls.
There's an occasional warbley-whap of a book page being turned and the continual hum of computers, printers, and copiers. I wonder how still it would really be if all those hums were shut down for a few moments. Would the students all around me realize that they are not alone in their world of continual study?
The computers give me a comforting reassurance that perhaps I am not alone in this large space, but it's artificial companionship. Although they may sound like they are breathing, real oxygen isn't being inhaled. The monitor is bright and open, like a face should be, but with no heart that peers through the eyes. Although it has the capacity to find me any information or fact, opinion or belief that I would ask it, there would be no true feeling behind it. It could tell me about the Aurora Borealis, teach me how to square dance, let me know the inner most thoughts and feelings of President Obama. It could tell me why the czars of Russia fell, why AIDS in incurable, or where to find an Indigo Bunting. But no computer can provide me with conversations of summertime, cry over a lost dream, or laugh over a story of a kindergartner. No program can teach how to feel the ethereal happiness of a song, the rush of country dancing with my husband, or the terror that I feel when
I am falling in a dream.
I do try to force conversation from these artificial companions. I scour blogs for signs of new posts and intelligent human thought. I scan Facebook for some sign of a friend, maybe that I could even chat with. I check my email repetitively, hoping for some new message. Even when these do come, they are brief and short-lived, always leaving me yearning for more. Most online conversations are on the surface, like water skimmers on a pond. If you've ever seen those bugs, you know what I mean. Precariously balanced on the water, with their four legs making small impressions and ripples as they glide, they appear to be all ease and skill. But as soon as they appear before you, gazing at them in your awe, they are gone. They have no time to linger, no time to spend with you; only a glimpse of acknowledgment, and they have skidded away.
Today we were discussing why students overall are not achieving reading success at such high rates or even as easily as in past generations. Before there was a definite gap. Those who came from higher socioeconomic statuses had higher reading scores. Those who came from lower socioeconomic statuses had lower scores and more difficulty learning to read. But now it's different. Now everyone is having a hard time reading. And researchers think they know why. Before this current generation of children, parents would talk to their children. They would read to them at night, sing silly songs to them, recite funny nursery rhymes. There was a time in school where nearly every child could spout off Mary Had a Little Lamb, Jack and Jill, and Humpty Dumpty. But now they don't. Children look at you with a dumbfounded look of confusion when you begin to sing nursery rhymes. They have no idea what you are talking about.
Talking and nursery rhymes may not seem like that big of a deal, but it is. It is essential to a child's ability to learn to speak themselves, and critical to their learning how to read. These children have not heard their language and therefore cannot identify individual sounds of speech. They cannot hear it. They cannot hear the sound that the "b" makes. They don't know that "mom" starts the "mmmm" sound. They are not able to isolate the most basic sounds of our communication, and therefore they cannot read it. Most of today's children of been educated by the Disney Channel and the computer screen, instead of their own parents. They learn their vocabulary, their basic fundamentals of speech, and how to interact with others from, yep, you guessed it-- Hannah Montana.
Our children don't know how to communicate, they don't know how to read, they don't know how to write. And yet we think that the answer is found somewhere in technology.
Why don't we just sit down and talk? Why don't we ask each other how our day was? What happened that made us happy? That made us sad?
Why don't we just turn the computers off for awhile, so that the hum can be still, and we can hear ourselves breathe. Just to make sure that we still can.