Katie (not her real name), a high school junior, walked briskly toward her first hour class, making sure to get in the room before the bell rang.
As she approached the door, I waved a greeting and said, “Good morning, Katie!” No response. Katie, normally wide awake and talking with friends, walked silently, her head down and eyes fixed on the floor. She was lost in thought.
I tried again, this time a bit louder. “Katie, good morning!” Suddenly aware that she zoned out on the way down the hall, Katie stopped abruptly, realizing I had been speaking to her. Startled and embarrassed she asked, “Did you say something to me, Mr. L?”
I smiled at Katie, held up two fingers and said, “Yes, I said ‘good morning.’ . . . Twice.” Blood rushed to her face, turning her cheeks red. Katie looked down again, tapped the toe of her shoe on the floor a few times and said, “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. I was thinking about something else.”
“Not a problem!” I quickly replied. “I’ll try again. . . . Good morning!” Katie’s gaze stayed glued to the floor. Under her breath she quietly replied, “Not really.” The bell rang, ending our brief conversation. Katie walked into class. I thought, “There’s a story in that comment.”
Throughout class, Katie wasn’t herself. Normally she was very engaged and eager to participate. On this day, Katie’s mind was in another place. She stared down at her desk with tired, weary eyes. After class I caught Katie’s eye and motioned her over to my desk. “Seems like you’re having a tough start to your day, Katie. Anything I can do to help?” Katie had tears in her eyes. Speaking softly, she said, “It’s been a bad weekend.”
I paused, thinking, “Life can be hard for teenagers!” then asked Katie, “Do you want to talk about it?” Katie turned her eyes from the floor to me and replied, “Actually, yes, I would because I don’t know what to do.” I motioned for Katie to sit in the chair next to my desk. I asked her, “How can I help?”
Katie reached into her coat pocket, took out her phone, cradled it in her hands. Her voice trembled with emotion as she said, “I thought they were my friends.”
I watched Katie turn her phone over and over in her hands, unsure of what to say next. With tears running down her face, she took her phone in one hand, shook it back and forth in the air and exclaimed, “I don’t know how this happened!”
I gave Katie a moment to gather herself, then asked, “What happened?” Katie wiped the tears from her cheeks and eyes. She took a deep breath. With a slight smile and a more typical Katie sense of humor, she said, “Mr. Landstra, you’re old. What was high school like without social media?”
I smiled, then quickly replied, “Hey, I’m not that old!” Katie laughed and sat back more comfortably in the chair. I added, “And I think a lot has changed since I was in high school!”
Katie showed me some of what was said to and about her on social media over the past weekend. A misunderstanding occurred. As a result, feelings were hurt. Not long after, one hurtful comment was posted, then passed along many times. Others weighed in. More feelings were hurt. In what seemed like the digital version of mutually assured destruction, an issue that might have been simply resolved became a talking point for more than one hundred people.
On Monday morning, the digital world collided with the real world of high school. These students now had to face each other and figure out what to do next. Katie and I spent time talking about how she might work through the problem.
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