Back in elementary school, we had a thing called Show and Tell. I'm sure some of you remember. The idea was, each kid brought in her most treasured possession, something particularly gross, exciting, sparkly, shiny, whatever, and showed it off to one-up the next kid. If you didn't have anything material to share, or you'd forgotten it was Show and Tell day, you shared a piece of news or a fact you'd remembered.
It wasn't a particularly socially-sensitive exercise. At my grade school at least, show and tell was all about bringing in the fanciest new toy you'd received lately to prove to the other kids that you were better than they were. It worked on the same principle as the twice-monthly no-uniform day, when the kids whose parents caved to such things wore their best designer clothes, meticulously selected to look precisely like everyone else's, except more expensive.
But I digress. Show and tell. The idea was, each kid stood up at the front of the class and brandished his or her Show. She would explain what it was (if not immediately obvious, and usually even then) and then tell how it worked and why it was the best thing she could come up with for that week. The coolest or most unusual Show won, although I don't remember the teacher ever declaring an official contest.
Once, I brought in a dried-up cicada I'd found in the backyard that was as long as my second-grade hand. I was the coolest kid in class that day, until one of the boys dangled the bug in my face and I ran away screaming. I was prepared to show it, but I sure wasn't prepared to take it.
Seems to me that the internet has turned into Show and Tell for the computer literate. Here we are, all sitting behind our glowing screens, yelping on social media sites about what we know, what we have, what we've done that is so much better than everyone else's, often in the name of Discourse. We all sit down at our computers and log on to see what everyone's up to, who found a funny cat video, who watched the political debate last night, whatever. We read these things, and maybe we comment on a few of them, or click a like button here and there. But most of us, I'd wager, are just watching politely, waiting for our turn to Show our news, our cat video, our political opinion. Except. Except when we do decide to speak, the stakes are much higher than any shiny slide on the playground.
I remember one show and tell when I forgot to bring a Show. It was second grade, and my family was moving that year, just a few blocks away. My mom told me later that we had to relocate from the ranch house where I'd been born to make room for my dad's new electric bass equipment, but at the time, I just knew I'd be getting a swing set. I stood up in front of the class and told everyone that I'd be moving, but that I would stay at the same school. The teacher wrapped her arms around my waist, hugged me to her soft dress (this was back when teacher's could touch kids) and said, "We're glad you won't be moving away from our school, and thank you for telling us about it."
On the way back to my seat, one of the Mean Girls (back when that wasn't Lindsay Lohan in her red period but just a girl who kicked your shins in gym class and stole your Hostess cupcakes) whispered, "Loser. I wish you'd curl up and die."
That day, that comment burned itself on my memory. Today, it might have emblazoned itself on my facebook page, broadcast on my tumblr or my twitter feed or in my blog comments section. Immortalized for eternity or until Al Gore shuts down the Internet.
People have always been cruel. They've always had the potential to bludgeon each other at the worst possible moment, but people have also always had limited memory banks. Sure, it hurts to get called a name. But the sting fades like a bruise, and eventually disappears. We've evolved to heal.
Computers have not. Their memories are long and impassive. What we may have yelled at each other down phone lines ten years ago is now splashed across the internet, where it lives forever. And there's no one to tell us to sit down and let Susie Show and Tell in peace.
Do we have an oversharing problem? Or do we have a problem receiving, processing and responding to what we see and hear? I'd wager it's the latter. I'm not in favor of policing the internet. I'm in favor of policing ourselves, and teaching our children to be kind. The internet is not going anywhere, and neither is the individual's ability to speak freely there.
I hope we all have the freedom to bash each other's taste in Lolcatz forever, but I also hope we can institute education that addresses the potential for cyberharm. Because it's not going to get any better. Not unless we all look in the mirror and acknowledge that we are as much a part of the problem as the solution, and then work toward sensitivity. For the sake of the children Showing and Telling at recess today and for the sake of the teenagers who will be taking that Showing and Telling online faster than they know how to handle it.
Before we lash out at each other, I think we could all benefit from sitting back and remembering what it felt like to be that kid at the front of the classroom with a new toy, a piece of news, a crunchy cicada. And then remember what it felt like to have someone tear it down in the schoolyard afterward. And then think about how that would feel in print, broadcast to everyone you know.
We humans have an amazing capacity for cruelty, but we also have astounding wells of compassion. It's time to tap into that second one and use the other less often.