In Memoriam: The Busy Signal

Let’s just take a moment to pay our respects to the phone book, the phone cord, the fax machine and the teenage angst.

My own line sounded amazing. I even tried to sell the idea to my mom, insisting it would allow me to talk to my friends (on one of those clear phones that lets you see the inner workings) in my upstairs bedroom while she could still use her fax machine and make her own calls in the kitchen.

She thought I was crazy. I don’t remember her exact words, but my brilliant idea was quickly blown off.

But here I am now, as a parent, and I’ve done it. So have you. We’ve given our children their own phone lines, with no cords even, something that only a select few had as we were growing up. 

Call waiting was HUGE. A private line was even bigger. It meant you didn’t have to wait to make a call if your older sister was taking nine years to hang up with her boyfriend and it meant you didn’t need to “keep the line open” if someone else in the house was expecting a call — especially if that someone paid the bills.

I joked the other day, wondering what the kids would do if I just dropped: 

Guys. Everyone stay off their phones for the next two hours. I’m expecting a call.

Just dial today back to 1987, like that. They would think I’m nuts. Like, think I’ve lost it. But wouldn’t that be something? To show them how much free access they have?

That’s the thing, right? Access. It’s always been a parent’s fear when they finally cave and hand over a phone to a child who is too young to have it. Doesn’t matter — they’re too young to have their own line. And I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t have enough chargers in the house to accommodate all of the underage phones. So, I know.

We always worry about what they’ll access. What images. What stories. What profanity or untruths (or truths!) or depravity. Right? Have we thought long enough about what can access them? Or who?

I’m not talking about data privacy. I’m talking about plain old personal space. Plain old privacy. They lose it when we hand them that phone. Maybe not that very second, but it’s where it starts.

If something happens at school, they bring it home. If something happens with friends, it continues. They don’t get to leave it behind on the playground or the steps of the school bus. It follows them and turns into hashtags and reels and group texts and memes. 

We got to walk it off. What a blessing that was, right? Yes, there was a chance it would bubble over into a few phone calls, depending on whatever the thing was — but we could also take our phone off the hook if we needed to.

Remember that? You were busy, protecting your space. 

Kids today can’t take their phone off the hook. It can be off the chain, but…okay. I had to, because I’m a parent, I had to drop in a stupid mom joke.

But honestly. They can’t, even if they try. Even if they step off from social media for a day or disconnect from wifi for a few hours, all of it will be waiting for them when they get back. And it will go right back to school with them.

And as parents, we’ve never navigated this kind of social ecosystem. It’s not something we ever had to deal with. 

I didn’t get a phone until my 20s, and I was charged for every minute I used it. But what we do know is the sentiment. The sentiment never changes. The tried and true behaviors of certain kids show up like characters from the past, and the same goes for the motivations behind any of those behaviors. And since we’ve survived certain situations and certain types of people, we can teach those kinds of survival skills.

I don’t know how to survive a nasty reel or a cruel hashtag. I just don’t. I’ll never understand that feeling, at that age, in that environment — which is already a pressure cooker on a good day. But the actual people behind the ugly thing? 

Don’t we all have a bag of tricks we can pull from for that?