Some of you might remember rotary-dial phones. You know, those big, thick, heavy plastic and metal things with a curly cord attached and a finger dial in the middle that took a long time and a lot of patience to get the number you wanted?
When I was a kid that was all we had. If it sat outside, like the phone on my grandparents’ patio, dirt would get under the dial and make a clean streak where your finger traced a line. Eventually everyone had push-button phones, though the cord hung on for a long time, allowing any family member within earshot to hear anything that was being said.
At our house we only had one phone. It was in the kitchen. It was mortifying for me to receive a phone call from a boy when I was in high school because, even though they pretended not to, my whole family could hear everything I said.
The only way to have a private conversation was to pull the phone into a closet and whisper. Now, texting allows people to have private conversations whenever they want.
It was a completely different experience to talk on the phone 25 years ago. For one thing, a person had to call your house and whoever answered the phone got to talk to them.
I LOVED answering the phone when I was little, even though calls were rarely for me. I loved getting to say hello to whoever was at the other end.
As an older child and teenager I didn’t like this quite so much. Having to greet various parents and siblings could get tricky and embarrassing, especially when calling a boy or a new friend.
Then there were those extra helpful parents. My dear friend Erin Johnson’s dad was one. Dr. Johnson felt it was his duty to teach me manners. If I called and asked, “Is Erin there?” he would simply respond, “Yes” — and wait for me to politely ask to speak to her. MAY I speak to her, of course, not CAN I speak to her. I appreciate his etiquette lesson now, but for a second-grader all of that seemed so complicated.
It was also fun to tease friends about how people in their family answered the phone.
My friend Elaine’s mom, Joyce, answered with a cheerful “YELL-oh!” which friends still imitate whenever we see Elaine. My colleague, Kristin, said her parents forced her to answer the phone “Gehrett residence!” — giving her friends plenty of fodder for teasing.
My Aunt Florene would sometimes answer with appropriate expressions for the time of day or year, like “Good afternoon!” or “Merry Christmas!” which I always enjoyed.
And speaking of Aunt Florene, I’m reminded of those wrong-number phone calls that happened a lot to us because she and my Uncle Barry lived on the same street my family did. Their son, my cousin Chad (the handsome UPS man), used to get sooo many phone calls at our house from girls. I still have the family’s now-useless phone number memorized because I had to always redirect callers to their number.
In fact, I have a lot of old phone numbers memorized, none of which would get a hold of anyone I know today. My mom said when she was a kid all the numbers in Walla Walla started with JA (like 5-2) and everyone would say their number was JAckson-whatever- the-rest-of-the-number was.
I don’t have current numbers memorized now, so I might be in trouble today if I ever lost my cell phone.
The art of having conversations with strangers, however, might now already be lost. In fact, today with caller ID we don’t just get to avoid phone conversations with friends’ families, but can even avoid seeing them when we go to a friend’s house. It is so much easier to just text, “I’m Here!” than to walk to the front door, say “Hi!” to Mom or Dad and have to make small talk.
In fact – do younger people even know what small talk is? I wonder how being raised in the age of cell phones, texting and email will affect our world in the long run? But at the same time, people raised without computers might not know how to Skype or IM, so maybe we’ll all balance each other out.
The most important thing is that at least we’re all still communicating!
Walla Walla native Sara Van Donge is a middle school dual language teacher. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.