Anthropologist for a Day

I spent yesterday at Pace Academy, my old high school, to observe the students in their environment to see how I could better tailor my presentation to them. It had been a long time since I had been inside a high school, usually I’m on the field watching students in the very narrow context of a lacrosse game.

This visit, was to see if I could identify any clear signs of stress. Not difficult to do in a school with the academic reputation of Pace Academy. I knew the students would be stressed, probably more than I was, and I wanted to see how they carried their stress. What I found will not shock you, but it is useful to list my observations:

Pangolin says:  “You can’t hurt me!”

Pangolin says: “You can’t hurt me!”

  • In class

    • Hunched and defensive postures

    • Hands in pockets

    • Signs of tension headaches

    • Fidgeting while sitting or standing

    • Allowing doors to slam closed

    • Negative comments - “I am not smart” or “You’re not smart”

    • Writing down notes word for word

    • Labored breathing

  • Out of class

    • Carrying phones

    • Phones on tables when in groups

    • Headphones in ears when conversing with a friend or friends

    • Zoning out

    • Signs of distress after negatively perceiving a comment from someone

All over campus there were signs reminding students that “It is okay to not be perfect,” and “Text this number if something in on your mind.” Good signs, but I was not sure if the students got the messages.

From how students took notes and chided one another, I felt that perfection, in an academic sense, was very much a goal for the majority in class.

More concerning, was the ubiquity of phones. Phones on tables, phones in laps, phones in hands, phones while walking outside, phones going up and down stairs. We have come to view this as a normal part of adolescence, but this is a new phenomenon. I weaved around kids who barely knew I was in their way. Honestly, their ability to navigate the physical world while plugged into the digital one was impressive, but also concerning.

The phone is a tool, nothing more. Now, it has been elevated to a sacred totem that must be carried from place to place to ensure the holder’s safety.

How strange it would look if we replaced phones with another tool - a telescope!

Imagine the sight of hundreds of kids carrying telescopes, looking through them, seeing friends, and moving through the world with their eyes fixed firmly on a distant point. That point, magnified in importance by the tool they use, but as they get closer, another even more distant point comes into focus.

They would never be here. They would not be present.

I am grateful that the Pace administrators allowed me to observe the students. As I now have a clearer idea of what skills I want to teach them during my talk tomorrow. Hopefully, what I offer will help some of them better navigate this hectic time of their lives.