A Show of Hands

Michael Wheaton

Before middle-schoolers could sign-up for social media accounts, I was a substitute teacher. I took over a seventh grade English class one day, and the lesson plan asked me to teach a short story about kids during the Civil War who pretended to be older so they could fight for their side. They were seeking glory, the idea of which had been propagandized on both sides. The students had trouble understanding this. Let’s do a poll, I said. How many of you want to be famous? Every damn hand in the room shot up. Keep your hand up if you actually think you’ll be famous one day. The hands didn’t budge, fingers reaching to the ceiling.


          At fourteen, I worked at a bagel place on Sundays. I no-call-no-showed one week, and the next week, the manager berated me. In my head the whole time, I was thinking, In ten years, this guy’s going to see a photo of me on a magazine cover. Then he’ll feel stupid. Ashamed, I brought this up to my therapist one day. She called it grandiosity. I call it growing up in a hyper-mediated culture, an overcompensation for my insignificance.


          Currently, I’m helping students complete their second Comp I essay where they have to take a position on the packet of discourse I provide about how—or to what extent, if any—addictive social media use on smartphones plays a role in mental health. Most of the students suggest in their theses that, basically, the role is huge and the effect is bad. In class discussions, they’ve told me it gets to them when they share something and don’t get many likes in response, or when others share something and do get hundreds of likes, or when they compare themselves to the curated surface life of the people in posts with the hundreds of likes. They feel worse if those numbers extend into the thousands. They feel worse still when they post more in attempt to make up for the disparity and get fewer likes than before in return.


          Amy and I clap for our toddler when he does things we want him to enjoy doing later. When he eats vegetables, we clap. When he slaps piano keys, we clap. When he brings us a book and sits through the whole thing, we clap. When we forget, he looks at us with these wide-eyes and claps twice, waiting. He cries. We clap until he smiles.


          Lately my mom is the only person engaging with my Tweets.


          In a class discussion before we started our discourse packet, I asked my Comp students, For how many of you is your smartphone the last thing you see before you go to sleep? The first thing you look at when you wake? Every damn hand in the room shot up.

Michael Wheaton is the editor of Autofocus & host of its podcast, The Lives of Writers. His writing has appeared previously in Diagram, Hobart, Bending Genres, Burrow Press Review, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021