LUTZ — They were everywhere at Steinbrenner High School. Teens with panic-stricken faces, furiously slapping one thigh, then the other.
My phone … Where's my phone?
Then they'd remember.
They were reading Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, and the assignment from English teacher Tiffany Southwell — strictly optional — had been to explore the book's themes of entertainment overload and social alienation. Give me your phones for a day, she suggested to 30 sophomores, and write me an essay.
Would Bradbury's tale of a futuristic world where books are burned be relatable in 2017?
One student, Chase Jackson, thought so.
"People are going too fast and don't take time to observe things and enjoy the luxuries of life," he wrote in his essay. "When people are always on their phone, they are not observing anything else."
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It was, some students thought, the easiest homework ever in a school where grade competition is fierce. Who wouldn't take that bet?
But it wasn't long before they realized a phone was like a child's security blanket — or, as Dylan Leugers wrote, "a second heart."
First came the frantic groping and scouring of pockets and backpacks.
"I literally thought that it was the end of the world," John Kahyaoglu wrote.
Two students admitted they reached for their phones while driving.
Jennifer Vazquez described symptoms of physical withdrawal: Jumpiness, irritability, then a headache, "like having a weight over your head."
Gone was their instant access to Google and edsby. A teacher's urgent text would not arrive in time. Unable to photograph what was on the whiteboard, they would have to take notes.
And there were social mine fields, like that nightmare about coming to school naked.
A phone is everyone's vaccination against an awkward conversation. It doesn't even have to ping. It's just there to grab at any moment.
So lunch was an exercise in endurance.
"Nearly half of Steinbrenner High School is generally in one area and people are still not talking to each other physically," Jackson noticed. Instead, they "stuff their faces" and scroll through their phones.
The trip home was not much better with no music, no Snapchat and no Instagram.
"It was the longest bus ride in my life," said Kai'Rell Lewis.
And yet, although not comfortable to talk face-to-face, they knew conversations were happening just out of their reach.
"I felt disconnected in a weird sense, almost like I was part of 'some other world' that required my attention, but I was cut off from," wrote McKenna Leist.
Would there be a price to pay later, a loss of stature, bruised feelings over unanswered texts?
Jackson: "I lost my phone, not my life." But it seemed "that to my friends, I wasn't there."
Interactions at home did not change as much. These are, in a large part, solid families who eat dinner together — phoneless, in some cases.
Bobby Harrigan had a chance to talk with his sister and his parents about this future.
Sebastian Maceda had thought his attachment to the phone was "a teenage thing." But he noticed his mother, father, sister and brother were not much better.
Over the course of the day, he said, they put down their devices, one by one, and soon the whole family was engaged in a conversation about an upcoming trip to the Dominican Republic.
The real problem was boredom.
There was no one to talk to, nothing to shop for. MJ Aljuboori could not watch his cat videos.
"In some cases," Maomi Marintez wrote, "I felt like the world slowed down and the day couldn't go by any slower."
At 4:45 p.m., wrestler Adrian Carmen found himself lying on his bed, doing absolutely nothing.
Adin Kossoff couldn't stand it. He grabbed his mother's phone to "just type randomly." That eased the jitters in his hands and arms.
But the worst was yet to come.
He had to watch Monday Night Football without being able to check on his fantasy team. He couldn't go to sleep because he had to wait for a television report, well past midnight, to check the game statistics.
But the students also described moments of enlightenment. A sense of living in the moment. Of walking the dog and being aware of the dog. Without headphones, they realized nature has its own cacophony of sounds.
"The sky and trees looked more vibrant," Lauren Donahey wrote. "I felt this feeling of serenity, comfort and contentment."
Football player Harrison Klein spoke, actually spoke with a teammate after practice about things other than football.
"We talked about school," Klein wrote, "and what he does when he is not playing or watching football."
Most told their teachers they slept better, although a few admitted in their essays that it was hard to doze off without that last spin through YouTube.
They said the exercise helped them focus on their homework. One told the teacher, "if I didn't have a phone, I'd be a rock star" in school.
Southwell was especially impressed by their thoughtfulness, how "they really are concerned about the younger generation."
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There are reasons why, for half a century, teachers have assigned Fahrenheit 451 to high school classes.
The most obvious: It celebrates books. And, in a way that appeals to young readers. It makes books — and things books represent, such as intellectualism and independent thought — delicious symbols of resistance and rebellion.
It also invites the reader to take a hard look at the more mindless pursuits that fill their days and occupy their minds.
Knowing they were inseparable from electronic entertainment, the students expressed a fair amount of self loathing and embarrassment. "Pathetic," Lewis called his dependency.
The big question was what would happen when Southwell released their phones to them.
How soon would they revert to their prior, wired-in selves?
Cameron Lee got a hint of an answer when he pressed the power switch.
Up popped 148 unread texts.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.