I'm Being Followed By My Life

My streak of avoiding public school bathroom stalls came to a thunderous and emphatic end in seventh grade. Behind a locked metal door, I sat on a cracked, black toilet seat and let my bell bottom corduroys wrinkle around my ankles. The bathroom door opened. I heard the sound of steel-toed bootsteps. Big Paul paused in front of my stall. I could see the dusty and dented tips of his size fourteen boots. One foot lifted and a second later my stall door was violently kicked open. Big Paul glanced at the waxy toilet paper squares I used to maintain my last stitch of privacy and then looked up, grinned and said, “What’s up, Fatty?”

I immediately began another streak of avoiding public school bathroom stalls.

Although that moment was traumatic, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. For me, junior high eventually ended and I never saw or heard of Big Paul again. Kids today don’t have it so easy. While they still go through the familiar childhood transitions, the process of dusting off the past and reinventing oneself is a much more complicated process. When today’s junior high students move on to high school or from high school to college, they are —  thanks to Facebook and other social networks — being followed by their digital selves.

The web won’t let the present become past.

Most of us choose a few friends and a few moments to carry with us as we progress through the stages of our youth and into adulthood. The rest is sloughed off like a snake’s skin or hammered deeply into our memory banks. When the social web emerged, folks in my cohort found ourselves reconnecting with some familiar names and faces from the distant past. Facebook, for us, is a nostalgia machine.

But things are different now. The always-on generation won’t use the realtime social web to reconnect with their childhood acquaintances because those connections will already have been maintained via tools like Facebook and Twitter. If you’re a child of the internet era, you will be followed by images and memories that used to be locked away in photo albums, scrapbooks and the unconscious.

My niece is about to enter a high school where she’ll know almost no one. Yet, she will also still be digitally connected to almost everyone from her eighth grade class — and that will likely remain the case for years to come. On one hand, she will have extra support and the sense of security that accompanies familiarity. On the other hand, the process of really being free to re-invent her high school identity will require a new kind of focus. From the first day of high school onward, her new real world adventures will be tethered to a previous set of experiences that are never more than a flick of the scroll wheel away.

If I were a few years younger, Big Paul would still be in my social stream. He may not have gone to my high school and we may not have been direct friends, but through our extended network of connections, I would forever maintain a realtime awareness of where he was, what he looked like and which Farmville animals he had most recently strangled. Big Paul would’ve been virtually kicking in my stall door for years.

Welcome to an era when junior high never ends.

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