My position as a fourth year special education paraprofessional at Fargo South High has given me a unique perspective on classroom behavior these days. My para colleagues and I have the responsibility and the gift of seeing nearly 200 students every day. I'm not going to talk about COVID, the delta virus or how virtual learning has affected classroom behavior. My basic observation is: “How are kids behaving in class these days?”

On average I'd say pretty well. Most are attentive, respectful, earnest in their studies, focused on the tasks at hand and aware of their class-by-class responsibilities. There is one problem, though. The phones. The damn phones. The phones are the addictive call of the sirens. The ache of the junkie before the score. The compulsion to react to every notification, from Snapchat, Tik-Tok, Instagram, Twitter, you name it. It pings, they're on it. Must have it. Now!

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When they're not paying attention in class, they're on their phones, stealth-like: Sitting in their desks, phones between their legs. Propped up against their PLD screens? Perfect. Tucked into their backpacks? Of course. The obsession prevents them from seeing the classroom for what it is. An organic tabula rasa. An empty slate for silly schoolboy pranks. The kind that defined my generation during the 1960s.

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Take Miss McKinney: Long in the tooth, teaching history to one generation beyond her grasp.

We would take our straws from lunch, find the appropriate small stones or peas and blow them with acute accuracy at the world globe on her desk. Ping! She'd look around. Ping! What is that sound? Ping! She never knew. We continued all semester long, to our devilish delight. There were so many more, with so many teachers. All of them, well, most of them were the innocent acts of the blossoming teenager.

My favorite? Seventh grade, Agassiz Junior High Band. We had the nation's most respectable teacher in the country. James Ployhar, known for writing more junior high, high school and college scores for playing than anyone in the country. Ployhar earned our respect from the first day of class. He deserved respect simply by his countenance.

Fast forward to eighth grade. Ployhar had gone on sabbatical. Our new teacher was Mr. Foote. Dennis Foote to be exact. On the first day of class no one played their instruments. He lectured us about the responsibilities of each student in band. Practice. Study. Know your instrument and know your place in the chair hierarchy. He was boring. He appeared weak. He appeared over his head. For us...he was the perfect target.

The Game: My best friend, Dick Weaver, was first trumpet. Another friend was first trombone. Yet another friend was first flute. Another was the lead bass tuba. On and on. The second day of class, Foote wanted to listen to the full band and then to each section (horns, reeds, percussion etc.) Little did he know that all of us “friends” had changed instruments. I became the first trumpet. Dick was the first in the percussion line. Dave played trombone. Rudy played flute. You get the picture.

When Foote instructed us to play in unison, you can only guess what kind of chaos ensued. It was noise beyond comprehension. We played our new instruments with uncontrolled abandon. Foote was stunned, left slack-jawed, as if being hit with a surprise left. He simply shook his head in confusion and shock. He stepped off his podium and walked in disbelief, aimlessly to his office at stage left..

Were these pranks cruel? Probably. Were they organic and from the minds of a few oppositional junior high school students? Yep. But weren't they more engaging, dangerous, risky and exciting than what today's students are doing in class? There are no hijinks. There is no communication between students. Pranks like this don't exist today. There's only the simian stroll of the phone obsessed.

Ferragut is a special ed para-educator for Fargo Public Schools and a longtime contributor to The Forum's Editorial Page. Email him at jferragut50@gmail.com.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.