When I started teaching, I was only four years older than the seniors.
Now that gap is twenty years. And while I can certainly still relate to them—at least I hope I can—it isn’t because of age proximity. We are clearly of different generations. One of the things that has helped me understand kids through the years is my work with our retreat and service programs.
Retreats are a big part of life at Jesuit high schools. While grounded in spirituality, they focus on the very human experience of being a teenager, and are decidedly “un-preachy.” The central messages are about love, authenticity, and honesty.
I went on my first retreat when I was sixteen, in 1995. They took our watches away to help us focus on the present. That part was kept secret, so we didn't expect it. It was no big deal. It felt good.
Eight years later, I was leading similar retreats at Georgetown Prep. Most guys had flip phones by then, so we took those away, too. It took on a different level of significance, but it still wasn’t that big a deal.
But now, what was once no big deal has become a focus in and of itself. Because taking away smartphones, just for a few days, is a very big deal. It's no longer a secret: Everyone knows that the phones will be taken away. Most welcome it, but nonetheless they brace themselves for it going in. Several have told me it’s the first time in their adolescence they’ve been away from a screen for any length of time.
Which would make it easy to decry how messed up this generation is, right?
Not that simple.
While we take their phones away, I keep mine, in case of emergencies. Of course, I try to set a good example, and I don’t take it out.
But man, is that tough. It’s there in my pocket, like an itch that needs to be scratched.
It isn’t just the kids.