Nantucket Essays

In the Spotlight

• by Robert P. Barsanti  •

He has stopped in the crosswalk by the Hub at nine o’clock at night.  His phone and my headlights put him in a spotlight; however, because his earphones are in, he cannot hear my car.  Instead, he hits himself in the thigh, then begins texting.  I flip my high beams up and down.  After a moment, he puts his hand to his eyes, sees me, and hurries across the road.

He is not unusual. All of us have done this, although we may have waited to stand on one side of the street or the other.  Adulthood conveys a healthy respect for moving cars and bicycles.  Our lives have adjusted to that technology, but we have yet to adjust our lives to our phones.  As a result, they rise up like eager puppies and begin nipping at our attention.  Words With Friends alerts me that it’s my turn at Scrabble and I need to see my letters.  A Facebook message needs a reply, a Vine video needs to be seen, and someone has topped my high score on Angry Birds.  I am as likely to stop what I am doing and stare into the spotlight of my phone as he is.  I just happen to be more likely to do it away from moving cars.

The digital world offers us a spotlight.  Facebook, Twitter, and little digital cameras insure that we can be the star of our movies every day.  Every twirl, spin, and failed triple salchow gets recorded, replayed, and rebroadcast to friends and their friends.  Or we hope that they are.  At its best, the digital world bypasses all the publishers and art galleries in New York and heads directly to your pocket.  Your picture of sunset over Cisco Beach can go out to millions of viewers.  Or it could go out to ten.  Our digital world has many copies but few originals.

Standing in the spotlight of our screen, we imagine the hundreds of faces in the audience.  Maybe they admire the purples in your sunset, the humor of a quip, or the sudden wisdom at the end of your dancing videos.  The ugly reality of performance is that you can only perform what the audience wants.   You can’t frown, you can’t sneer, you can’t wax poetic, because you might not be “liked” or “shared.”  Worse than electric silence, you could be mocked and THAT could go viral. You can post gossip, funny videos, and puppy pictures, but if you try for more than that, the audience will move on; too long, didn’t read.

The digital world seems very large; it contains every museum and library in the world.  Yet, our world is shrink-wrapped small; our friends, their friends, and a bored co-worker might post a like and they might not.  The more cat pictures we post, the more they will like us.  Our actual Facebook world can fit into a bathroom.  And they will take pictures.

Someday, we will figure all this out or the technology will get replaced with something newer and more amusing.  Some engineer and marketing team is right now working on the next device that will amuse us in the middle of the crosswalk.  Those folks remain focused on the further shrinking the world around us to our friends, their favorite TV shows, and a few select brands.

The school year begins in early September.  The primary job of most high schools and teachers is prying the students fingers from their phones and turning off the spotlights.  We have developed all sorts of tricks for this.  At our most authoritarian, we install electronic blockers and hang collection bags from the chalkboard.  At our most personal, we explain, coax, and cajole.  They slip back into the shrink wrapped world when they leave the door.

I teach in a school built during the great Depression.  It commands the center of town, peering out behind two columns and four ancient elms.  Just inside the doors, nine feet off the floor, they placed a plaque: “Erected so that her youth may here acquire the knowledge which makes for a larger life.”

I can imagine what the builders meant.  They worked for pennies and never traveled farther than twenty miles from their birthplaces.  Their bosses were sons of the bosses before them.  Their meals were the same meals they had as children.  And now, their poverty was the same poverty their parents endured. The world ended at the beach.

They came home from work at the hotels and the wharfs and the power plant and wanted something better and bigger than they had right now.  Without the power of the Common Core and a hundred thousand consultants, they could only wish for a ”larger life.”

A “larger life” happened off-island, in Boston, New Bedford, or New York.  A larger life had names they didn’t know, streets they couldn’t find, and food they couldn’t pronounce.  A larger life had big ideas, big buildings, and big events.  And big checks.   They wanted their children to work for strangers, to get paid in checks, and get weekends off. They wanted a larger life than Nantucket could offer them.

So they trusted in the schools.  They built it as a port where they could send their children off to a world that didn’t want their parents.  At that school, they could learn the math and the literature and the knowledge that made for useful tools away from a small sand spit in the cast away corner of the ocean.  Their children would grow into a larger life here, and then at University, and that at work and then, decades later, bring that large life back to a small island.

The cause endures.  The school exists to crack the wrapping off of their students and bring them into a larger life.  We pry them free from their friends, families, and phones.  A larger life happens on a larger stage with a bigger audience and a brighter spotlight.  You come to it with your head up, your eyes open, and a healthy respect for moving vehicles.

Articles by Date from 2012