A friend asked me to be on a book panel to discuss Manning Marable’s book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention that a group of college honors students had been assigned to read over the summer and I accepted her invitation. Only after receiving the itinerary did I learn that the event would take place a little over an hour away in Macon. My husband and son accompanied me to the event and so that made it a nice drive.
The discussion took place at the historic Douglass Theatre. Since the name was spelled the same as the historic abolitionist’s I initially thought it a tribute to him. In fact, it honors the man who built it, Macon native Charles H. Douglass. Douglass built the theatre after making his money as the proprietor of a bicycle repair shop. We learned that some of the most talented black musicians to come from Macon performed on that stage. It was hard to imagine such an intimate venue framing the expansiveness of Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, but apparently, it did. I liked the venue very much.
As our panel organized my son had become antsy, wanting to talk to me from afar. Once my co-panelists began their presentations, my son had to be taken from the venue. As he calmed down, my husband and son would appear periodically throughout the various discussions. Afterwards, my husband shared with me that he had not seen so many people playing Angry Birds and texting at the same time as he saw from his vantage point at the back of the room. He found it extraordinarily disrespectful. “If these are the honor’s students, I would hate to see how the regular students behave,” he said. I agreed. I was put off by their arrogance and struck by how at odds it was from the humble posture that St. Augustine marks as a characteristic of learning. It was also at odds with the lesson Poppy offers his grandson Nate in Toni and Slade Morrison’s interpretation of one of Aesop’s fables and thus from an entire storytelling tradition on the value of paying attention.
In Who’s got Game? Poppy or the Snake, Nate, the favored grandson, tells his grandfather that he doesn’t want to leave his company and be forced to return to school. When Poppy presses him, the boy shares that he has a difficult time concentrating on the lesson because of the fun taking place around him. This leads Poppy to tell Nate a story about the time he accidentally ran over a snake who he then felt responsible for helping to heal. The snake eventually bites Poppy but Poppy had injected himself with a serum that protected him against the poisonous venom. “Oh, that’s what saved you!” Nate says. “Not entirely. Paying attention is what saved me,” Poppy concludes. Paying attention, Poppy told Nate earlier “was just another way of taking yourself seriously,” which was something my husband and I felt the honor’s crowd had not considered.
Taking one’s self seriously wasn’t altogether overlooked by the students as I overheard many of them expressing to the Director the events on their schedules that they were concerned about getting back to Atlanta to attend. Clearly, they had a very different notion of taking one’s self seriously than we did. Taking one’s self seriously for them meant focusing on the calendars they had built for themselves. If they were not engaged in those appointments, they allowed themselves to become distracted from what was occurring before them. Taking one’s self seriously also seemed to be about expressing one’s aspirations for professional success. The students that I was on the panel with discussed their career ambitions and actually used their presentations to describe how they were using the history of Malcolm X’s life as documented in Marable’s historical account to inform their professional pursuits. Thus, many of their presentations combined book reports with speeches on what they wanted to be when they grew up. It wasn’t what I expected.
As much as I like my devices, being convinced by the value of paying attention keeps me from being seduced by them. As with Morrison’s story, I think my early education prepared me to be suspicious of the lure of distractions. Before Poppy schools Nate, Little Red Riding Hood’s mother warned her about being lured from the path on her way to visit her grandmother. The value of paying attention is an early lesson. When I tell my son to pay attention, I think I’m equipping him with a life sustaining piece of advice: paying attention could save your life. In playing Angry Birds and text messaging, those students were showing a very casual regard for themselves at the same time as they were claiming to take themselves seriously. Paying attention is a call to the present. It acknowledges the meaningfulness of the present as a necessary context for any future you plan on having. Playing Angry Birds and text messaging while others were presenting work where they imagined you as a present audience, if not an interested audience, was not only rude, it was reckless. We cannot allow our new devices to tempt us away from old lessons. Paying attention is old advice that matters in an age of new technology.