I thought I'd seen it all when a student's mobile phone went off at the start of my lesson only to find out that another student was ringing in to apologise for being late.
I was handed the phone, a smart and tactile little black Nokia number as I was about to start the ball rolling on Hamlet. I stood there in full view of the class trying to look very disapproving as Linda, one of my brightest hopes for an A grade, spoke to me from her car stuck in a tailback on the motorway.
"I thought you lived in town, five minutes walk from college," I said. She told me that she had taken her mother to the airport to put her on a plane to Dusseldorf where her sister was having twins.
"Is that your auntie or your sister?" I found myself asking vaguely, never having had anything to do with a mobile phone before ." Because your sister's only 13 isn't she?" I had to end the conversation by thanking her for informing me and even said "bye" in a rather over-familiar way, aware that the students were having a smirk at my expense. "So what would Hamlet say to Ophelia if he could phone her?" I countered. "How differently would things have worked out then?" Inspired, I kept up the modern technology theme all lesson;Polonius's e-mails to Claudius etc. It was the sort of lesson that you wished a Further Education Funding Council inspector would walk into unannounced.
Nearly every student seems to carry a mobile phone in my college. Students phone each other from different parts of the campus. Many leave them on the desk casually or pull them out of pockets while they are searching for their electronic organiser to make a note of the assignment deadline. "Yes. I think I can squeeze in a Hamlet essay for you at 11.15 on the 25th." And with a silent press of a button it's entered. For some, entering the information in the machine's memory is as close as they'll ever get to writing the thing. There are too many calls to take, too many messages on the answer machine to get through. Life goes at too fast a pace. You settle down in the library to do the business and the phone rings.
My mate Colin in the maths department says they'll probably get cancer anyway. He's read about people in the States suing for damages because a link has been made between mobile phone use and cancer of the ear. And if they don't get cancer they'll all be unhappy anyway, says Colin. He reckons that new technology makes us all agitated and boosts our stress levels for very little gain. He's absolutely right because I barged into his office the other evening and he went bright red, stood in front of his monitor and tried to click out of the web site he was on, sweat beading on his wrinkled pate. I'd never seen anyone operate a mouse behind their back before. "Just some site someone recommended me," he gabbled "All a waste of time really."
Lifestyle accessorising is what it all boils down to I suppose. My students are in that right psychographic grouping that the marketing folk at cell phone companies are targeting with all the aggression of telecommunication Rottweilers. It's not just the phone, it's the colour, the interchangeable fascia, the way it slides into a pocket, the way you can flip it closed with one hand.
"It's the best deal," insists Linda, the student whose work I always mark first so that Ican get some good ideas tocriticise the rest of the class for not spotting. What she doesn't know about why things arerotten in the state of Denmark isn't worth knowing. "lf you shop around you can get a good deal, like so many minutes'free talk every evening," she trilled as we walked togetherto the car park.
"Who do you talk to?" I asked, realising that I had made a gaffe the moment that I had begun to project my voice into the howling northwesterly that was swirling with menace about the nether regions of the campus.
"Friends at college," she sneered.
"Can't you talk to them during the day?" "Get a life!" she barked. And get you to a nunnery as well Linda, I thought as we parted, she for her mother's R-reg Polo and me for my understated functional Ford saloon.
"Make sure you turn up on time tomorrow," I shouted. But she was already inside her metallic green life accessory with the stereo going. I found something safe on Radio Four and headed for home.
* Donald Hiscock is a teacher at an FE college