I am now in my fourth year of teaching middle school and high school here in New Orleans, and during that time I have encountered all sorts of attempts at student counterfeiting and forgery: alleged parent notes, fake restroom passes, phony doctors notes and field trip permission forms.
But this week provided a new twist on an old tradition: forged text messages.
This past Wednesday, a tugboat transporting a crane sheared off a power line over a canal, plunging a large area of town that included my school into two-plus hours of darkness. (The English teacher part of me figures there is a metaphor here somewhere about being in the dark putting my students and I on equal footing for once, but I can’t seem to find it.)
I was just starting to pass out a test on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to the juniors in my English 3 class when the power went kablooey, and of course my first inclination was to just wait a few minutes to see if the power would return, making small talk with the students while we waited in near total darkness.
A few minutes passed, it remained dark, and kids had begun texting parents, grandparents and who knows who else trying to find out what was going on, and of course, trying desperately to get someone to pick them up at school because the power was out.
The room was filled with nearly twenty kids hunched over, faces illuminated by the glowing screens of iPhones, iPads, Driods and smartphones of varying designs. The array and capabilities of the electronic devices of my students was amazing; kids were surfing the net, plucking videos off of YouTube, listening to music, posting on Facebook – all by the techno magic of rechargeable batteries.
My phone makes calls, and you can text with it.
A teacher from down the hall (her room was larger and even darker than mine) stopped by and asked if she could borrow a student with a flashlight on a smart phone for a moment; we indeed, had an app for that, and I loaned her the girl with the miners-lamp phone to allow her some illumination in her classroom.
After about forty-five minutes, word was passed along that the power company would not have the power back on for another hour or more. By this time, many parents had become aware of the situation and had arrived to check their kids out for the day. As we had no power, the p.a. system was useless, so kids could not be summoned to the office as they normally would. The only quick means of communicating with teacher across campus was via the administrators who were roaming the grounds with walkie-talkies, but they had better things to do than to retrieve who knows how many of the 2,000 or so students on campus.
We were then informed that if parents wanted to check their children out, they could come to the school and when they arrived in the office, they could text their children to come up front and be taken home. The student was to show the parental text to their teacher, who would then send them to the office, where staff would confirm the parent was there and send them al on their merry way.
Sure enough, within ten minutes I had my first kids get texts from their parents in the front office. The first two to leave were young women with whom I had been chatting, and who I had observed carrying on running text-conversations with parents, so I was pretty sure those were legit. Over the next twenty-minutes or so, another half-dozen students got the texts and were gone.
Not being a very patient lot overall, the kids remaining were getting pretty antsy. Knowing how widespread the power outage was, I presumed (correctly, it turned out) and told the kids that all the traffic lights out had probably made a mess of traffic, so that many parents who may have wanted to come get their kids might not be able to get there quickly or at all.
This info did not placate anybody.
I had moved the white bar stool normally at the front of my room into the doorway so I could simultaneously watch the classroom and the hallways. I sat there, foot against the door jamb, waiting. Glancing at the room from my doorway perch I noticed two young men vigorously thumb-bashing their cellphone keypads, while occasionally sneaking a glance in my direction.
Skullduggery – or quasi-reasonable facsimile thereof – was obviously afoot
Sure enough, one of the young men got up suddenly, looked at his phone with surprise, and said, “Hey, Mr.Lucker! I can go!” He sauntered over to the doorway, holding out his phone and saying, “See? It’s from my mama!” He handed me his phone, and, sure enough, there was a text message: ‘I am here to get u – mama’
“It’s not my mama?”
“It’s your ‘COM-POSE MES-SAGE’ screen” I repeated, slowly. ” Says so right at the top.” I pointed to the screen for proof.
“Go sit down.”
A few minutes later, forger number one’s buddy came up to me, proffering his phone with proof. “Mr. Lucker, my daddy’s here. Can I go? See?” He held out his phone with a text message that said ‘I’ll pick you up.’ The time stamp said 9:42 P.M…. a solid thirteen-hours prior to our conversation.
“Man, if he’s picking you up last night – he’s way late.”
“Go sit down.”
I shook my head and made a note on the clipboard propped on my knee. This counterfeit text shtick was either going to get really amusing or pretty annoying very quickly.
Another student walks up, followed quickly by another; both showed me their phones with proper text messages, dated within the past minute. They left and did not return, so they must have been legit. Another girl came up, and showed me the cloud transcript of the last twenty minutes; a fascinatingly dull exchange with her mom, on her way to school to pick up her daughter, stuck in traffic, and observing that she was stuck in traffic. Repeatedly. Her mom was now in the office, so she left.
Those of us remaining sat for a while, a few kids were listening to iPods or music on their phones, about half-a-dozen were sitting in the far corner chatting. The first two forgers were back at it at a far table, hunched over, secretive again.
Meanwhile, another kid walks up; he had been sitting off with another kid, talking quietly. As the kid approached the doorway, I noticed his friend looking furtively over his shoulder. Hmmm. “Mr. Lucker – my daddy just called from out in the parking lot. Can I go to the office?” He showed me his ‘received calls’ screen; there it was, a just received call listing, avatar next to it labeled ‘Daddy.’
“Huh. They’re supposed to be at the front desk and send a text. How ‘bout I just call him back real quick…” I started to press ‘reply’ – willing to bet the next sound to be heard would be his buddy’s phone ringing from the far end of the classroom. But he quickly took his phone back.
The kid went and sat down without a prompt from me. His pal’s shoulders slumped, and the kid shook his head. I did the same, trying not to laugh.
Next up was a kid who had typed his own, forged message from mom – TO: Mama (complete with mama-avatar next to it) He, too, showed me his phone screen; a text message saying ‘Ima at the front to git u’ (sic) was there in all its pixellated brilliance until I pointed out the obvious:
“”Umm, this says ‘TO’ your Mama – it’s not ‘FROM’ your mama.”
His silence and dejected look did not move me.
“Go sit down.” I shook my head and again made a note on my clipboard.
By now only nine of the nineteen kids I had started class with when the blackout hit remained; the rest had been sprung legitimately. About two hours after the power had gone out, it returned, and after a little schedule juggling, we completed the rest of the day without incident.
So the term ‘power outage’ maybe doesn’t have the far-reaching implications that it used to – at least in terms of electronic communication. As for some of my students, they’ll probably remain in the dark for a while.