Look Who’s Stupid Now

In which I go back to school and get schooled

Back in December, I wrote a story for the magazine about kids and the worrisome ways in which experts say technology is rewiring their brains. In the course of reporting the story, I went to a football game at Cheltenham High, hung out with some members of the student council, and met some of their teachers. I returned to the school a few days later for a student council meeting, at which the kids took a quiz I’d written up, with questions on pop culture and general knowledge—stuff like how many pints are in a quart and the names of the Kardashian sisters. We had a lot of fun.

When it came time to write the article, I mentioned my visits to the school, quoting several kids and a couple of the teachers. I used the material as a contrast to the scene that precedes it, in which I learned about current research into how kids learn from experts at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. I meant this to be taken as a journey from the theoretical world of academia to the actual world of high school. What never once occurred to me was that the kids at Cheltenham High would read about their school in an article titled “Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?” and think that I was calling them stupid.

But that’s exactly what they thought, as I discovered when I went back to Cheltenham High yesterday, at the invitation of English teacher Keziah La Torre and librarian Randi Wall, and faced six classrooms full of teenagers who were, in their words, “mad,” “hurt,” “confused,” “disappointed,” “shocked” and “appalled” by what I’d done. The way they saw it, they had generously opened a window into their lives for me, and I’d tossed a grenade through it. They listened in unfailing politeness as I tried to explain that I never meant to imply that they were stupid, individually and as actual genuine people; I was only labeling their generation stupid. “Stereotyping, you mean,” a serious young man said, and I sat in one of those uncomfortable little combo desk/chairs, my face flushed and my mouth open, thinking: Yes. Stereotyping. That’s exactly what I did.

We talked about a lot of other stuff in those six sessions: journalistic ethics, the future of print media, The Social Network, getting into college, the weirdness of Farmville, reading a book vs. seeing the movie, and DOES MY SON REALLY NOT KNOW THE DAYS OF THE WEEK?!? The kids were bright and engaged and impeccably mannered and so very willing to hear what I had to say even after I’d, well, as Amy said, “disrespected” them. They challenged me (ever so politely), they made their cases, we laughed, we made peace, we shook hands. They gave me wonderful thank-you notes when I left. I was so impressed with their poise and eloquence—and their intelligence. So if anybody out there is worried about the future of the world, I can tell you, the cure is a visit with Zhair and Nasir and Nikki and Alexis and Sal and Melissa and Ben and Quadirah and Kasandra and Jayme and all the rest of those generous, open-minded kids. Thanks, guys, for having me.

Oh, and Mrs. Wall? I, um, accidentally walked off with the library’s copies of Philly Mag. I’m mailing them right back to you. No disrespect intended, I swear!