Two weeks into my sophomore year of high school, I overheard a student speaking Spanish in the hallway. I was taking a Spanish class at the time and was aware of no student who actually spoke the language, so the sound of a trilled r caught my attention.
“I am here on exchange,” the stranger explained as I introduced myself. “I am called Pablo and I come from Mexico.”
And thus began a rather odd alliance. After making small talk for a few minutes, Pablo and I decided he would help me with Spanish and I would help him with English. We completed this feat by tutoring each other as we walked through the halls en route to several classes we shared.
One morning, as the school year drew to an end, Pablo said he had been talking to his father on the phone and they had a surprise for me. I was shocked—not because Pablo had a surprise for me, but because he had talked to his father. On the phone. All the way to Mexico. At the Patterson household we used long-distance services solely to report a birth or death. Even then, Dad would pace back and forth as the phone conversation unfolded and shout out numbers as if counting down a rocket launch.
“Did someone die?” I asked. “No,” Pablo explained “it was just one of our weekly chats.”
“Holly gazillionaire!” I thought to myself. “Who has international long-distance chats?” It was at this moment I first suspected that Pablo’s parents back in Mexico weren’t driving a dented 55 Chevy like the one parked in our driveway.
“As soon as this school year is over,” Pablo explained, “Papá said it would be okay for you to spend the month of July with us at our family’s hacienda in the mountains. We could continue our language education, plus it would be fun.”
“What the heck is a hacienda?” I wondered.
“I think you’ll like it there,” Pablo continued. “It has stables, tennis courts, swimming pools, boats, a private lake, a landing strip, and more. So what do you think?”
“I’ll have to ask my parents,” I explained as I tried not to look too eager while jumping up and down and squealing like a six-year-old girl.
“Good,” Pablo replied, “and while you’re talking to your parents, mention that Papá thinks it’s best if you pay for your own flight.”
Really? Would a pig be soaring alongside that flight? Because that’s what it would take to get my dad to buy me an airline ticket. And thus ended any hopes I had of spending a glorious month cavorting at a Mexican hacienda.
In an effort to save embarrassment (and not hurt Pablo’s feelings), I fabricated a conflict. “That’s the month of our big family reunion,” I lied. “Maybe you should invite somebody else from school.”
“But you’re my best friend,” Pablo said. “It would be more fun at the hacienda with my best friend.” I was his best friend? I had never even invited Pablo over to our house. We didn’t play poker on Friday nights. We didn’t hang out. We had only talked in the hall—and then mostly about grammar. We were acquaintances, at best.
I don’t remember what I said to Pablo that day as I tried to gracefully decline his generous invitation. I do remember wondering if Pablo had been lonely and I hadn’t even noticed. More importantly, what kind of a friend is someone who doesn’t even know he is a friend? Decades passed until one day our ten-year-old granddaughter Rachel once again brought to my attention the fact that making friends can be tricky. After returning with her family from a stint overseas, Rachel had entered school mid-semester and was having trouble finding a playmate. At lunch she would approach each clutch of girls her age and politely ask if she could play with them. Each said no. Rachel continued with this tactic for two weeks until she finally gave up. When my daughter told me about this, I felt sick. The image of a sweet little girl being rejected over and over tore at my heart.
“Teachers need to watch for that,” I thought, “or a kid could be scarred for life.”
“Schools aren’t staffed for that kind of monitoring,” explained my neighbor who was teaching school at the time. “Besides, you can’t force kids into friendships. They have to form naturally.”
My thoughts turned to these two events after hearing several news stories—all reporting that feelings of loneliness, isolation, and social discomfort are on the rise (and not merely with exchange students and late arrivers). Apparently electronic devices are making it difficult for some individuals to make human connections and to enjoy them once they do. Young people are particularly vulnerable. Since many of today’s youth spend a good portion of their time silently playing side-by-side at game consoles and then when they do talk, doing so via text, many are entering the workforce with an aversion to face-to-face (and group) interactions. According to one report, many Millennials appear as if they’d rather be texting their responses during a job interview than talking in person. Others are having trouble empathizing. Still others are feeling lonely.
Having watched what happened to Rachel a few years back, my own offspring are doing their best to combat the effects of both machine and human-based isolation. To begin with, they ensure that their kids belong to sports, music, academic, and/or special-interest groups where participants are required to (1) meet face-to-face, (2) talk, and (3) cooperate. Nothing else will do.
“Think about participating in band,” my daughter explained. “Band members know who they’ll sit with at lunch before they even show up at high school. That’s a big deal.”
I mentioned this to my fifteen-year-old neighbor and he eagerly responded, “I went to band practice the summer before high school and when I nervously walked through the high school doors the first day of school, I realized that I knew dozens of my classmates and had lots of friends! All in the band.” His brother explained that he had experienced something similarly comforting, only with the robot club.
Clubs and teams can be a great help in providing social experiences, but not without work. Make sure that as youngsters gather to build robots or shoot baskets, they also learn how to interact effectively. Blend music, sports, and science skills with tutoring in social skills. Blend physical fitness with training in social fitness. Watch to see if participants know how to carry their part of a conversation, work through differences of opinion, graciously include a new or shy member, talk comfortably in a group, and encourage teammates who are struggling. When you observe problems, teach solutions. For years we’ve helped young people study math, biology, and literature. What a blessing it would be if we started teaching them how to bond with peers, strengthen groups, and make life-long friends.
And Pablo (wherever you may be), do you still own that hacienda? I was just wondering.