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Students unplugged . . . the horror, the horror!

April 29, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Can it be done?

In the year 2009, in a hopelessly wired world, can a small group of willing but nervous Los Angeles 10th-graders survive one long week without using any electronic devices?

"I suspect that people will be going crazy," said student Jamila Mohedano, who doubts her own ability to go unplugged without becoming unglued.

The torture at Guantanamo Bay was nothing compared to this. Beginning today at a downtown college-prep charter school, the homeroom class of teacher Shannon Meyer will go cold turkey for seven endless days.

We're talking no TV.

No iPods.

No iPhones.

No BlackBerrys.

No computers, which means no MySpace and no Facebook.

And it gets worse.

No cellphones.

Oh, the humanity! That means -- weep if you must -- no texting.

"I like texting a lot," said Angie Gaytan, who sleeps with her cellphone under her pillow and responds immediately if she gets a message in the middle of the night.

"It's an addiction," Cesar Rodriguez said. "You don't have to use it, but you get that temptation and it controls you."

Even if you don't immediately respond, he said, you can't help but check a text message the moment you hear the electronic beep.

"You wonder who it is," he said.

This is the way her students live their lives, said teacher Meyer. They're wired to everything but connected to nothing meaningful. If she sees a student in class take a little too long searching for a pencil in a backpack, she knows what's really going on.

"They're texting," which is not allowed on campus.

Meyer had tried what she called a brief "media fast" at another school last year, but she wanted to grow the challenge this year at the California Academy for Liberal Studies Early College High School. By her rules, students can only use a computer for homework and a cellphone for an emergency, and they will chronicle their experience in journals.

"These kids are really bright, but they're quickly bored," Meyer said. She believes the constant electronic stimulation and sensory overload make kids ill-equipped to follow the slower rhythms of classroom dialogue or to interact with one another in meaningful ways.

Student Andres Lopez -- no relation -- agreed with her, so Meyer asked him to get hold of someone at an old-fashioned newspaper before print media ends up in the dark wing of a dinosaur museum. Andres, bless his rebel heart, reads this newspaper and asked if I would care to write about the one-week challenge.

I was more than happy to oblige, but had my doubts about whether any of the 22 homeroom students would stay unplugged after next Wednesday.

"I think they'll find that their quality of life is better, but they'll go back to their old habits anyway," Meyer said.

Still, I said, maybe it's true that an unexamined life isn't worth living.

"Who wrote that?" Meyer asked.

"Socrates," Andres said.

After reading a news story titled "I tweet, therefore I am," Andres and his classmates concluded it might be true that they don't feel as though they exist unless they constantly share their thoughts and experiences, even if all they're doing is brushing their teeth.

"I want to break free from it because it's annoying," said Angie, who listens to music on MP3 players, watches the 42-inch surround-sound TV in her living room or the 32-inch in her bedroom, has an electronic PlayStation, a computer and two cellphones that take pictures and link her to the Internet.

And for all that, she said, "I don't talk to my family anymore, and I don't know what's going on in the world."

"I think this is prompting us to get out of our bubble and get some Vitamin D," Jamila said.

But she also said there are lots of gangbangers in her neighborhood, and when her parents don't let her outside for fear of violence, her only connection to friends is by cellphone or e-mail.

Jesus Alonzo doesn't know if he can make it through a week of the NBA playoffs without knowing what the Lakers are up to.

"I'll have to wait till the next day to read it in the paper," he said with a long face.

What, and there's something wrong with that?

Angie may have to eat dinner locked in a closet because at her house, the kitchen is arranged so the family can watch TV while eating.

"For some people this is going to be peaceful," said Andres, who likes a cleansing walk on the beach and said he thinks a good hike can put you back in touch with yourself. "Others are going to hear voices in their head they didn't know they had."

I happen to think Meyer's electronic media fast is a great idea, and there ought to be a citywide challenge to see which students can go off the grid the longest.

Anybody game?

Among Meyer's students, Angie plans to play a lot of guitar this week and Jesus is going to train for the L.A. Marathon. Jamila figures she'll be the first to crack and reach for her BlackBerry, but she intends to focus on writing if she gets the shakes.

With all his free time, Andres said, he intends to do more reading. And one more thing, as well:

"I'll say 'hi' to my parents every now and then."

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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