ST. PETERSBURG — For middle school kids, the universe begins and ends with their cell phones. • They wake up to ringtones of their favorite Lil Wayne songs, get dressed while receiving texts from their moms reminding them to not forget their homework. On the bus, they hold their phones at arm's length to snap yet another self-portrait — baby fat unmistakable under the mascara — and to shoot a picture of their cousin fighting with that kid Dustin from down the street. In the lunchroom, they wait until no adult's looking, then check their inbox with thumbs glowing orange from Flamin' Hot Cheetos dust. They're not supposed to use their phones at school, but they do. They text all day every day, driving their teachers over the edge. Late at night, they're still texting under the covers, flirting and gossiping, pushing away boredom and loneliness and sleep. • The other day, a few girls at John Hopkins Middle School flipped open their phones and allowed us to scroll through their life stories, as of five minutes ago.
*seriously love to text. smile. parent over shoulder. later
Eighth grade, 14 years old. Calls herself "the wild child."
Marissa's phone is fire engine red. Its faceplate glowers with a photo of her boyfriend, Giovanni, wearing boxing gloves. Other pictures of Gio, trying to look tough and clowning with his friends in the halls, dominate the phone's photo library. Most of these shots he took himself.
"Let's just say he likes the camera a lot," says Marissa.
Inside her phone she also keeps video snippets of Gio rapping, of her math teacher making seal noises in front of the class, of her and her friends pretending to kidnap her cat, Princess.
Marissa's speed dials are her mom, her sister and her grandmother, who lives in Arizona. Sometimes, her grandmother messages Marissa to see if she's having a good day.
"My grandma texts me," says Marissa. "I taught her the little abbreviations for everything."
Not long ago, her grandmother sent her one of those abbreviations:
Marissa wrote back:
Eighth grade, 13 years old. Plays volleyball after school. Recently traumatized when she left her cell phone in one of the bathrooms at John Hopkins. When she came back a few minutes later, Lacey found another girl chatting on it inside a stall. When Lacey knocked on the stall's door, the other girl broke the phone.
"She snapped it in half!" says Lacey.
Now the school's resource officer is involved, and maybe lawyers and other unpleasantries. In the meantime, Lacey's parents bought her a shining new turquoise phone, which is already filling up with text messages.
"I just got about 60 this morning," says Lacey.
Half of the texts, it seems, are from a guy friend of hers. This boy has just announced that he likes a certain girl but is a little cagey on her identity. He texts Lacey four names of who it might be and asks her to figure out which is right.
Lacey hopes it's not her. She doesn't want her friendship with this boy to get messed up. She texts him her official guess — Aubri — and waits to hear back.
Days go by. No answer from the boy.
Seventh grade, 12 years old. Prefers to go by Brezzy, pronounced "Breezy." Wants to become a crime scene analyst, just like on CSI. First needs to clear up a small problem involving multiple confiscations of her cell phone. She keeps texting in class; her teachers keep removing the phone from her hands.
"I've had it taken away 125 times this year," says Brezzy.
"Are you serious?" says another girl. "Were you counting?"
Her photo gallery shines with a galaxy of self-portraits: Brezzy sitting with her stuffed Elmo, Brezzy in a hoodie making waif eyes, Brezzy flashing a peace sign and sticking out her tongue.
Mostly, though, her phone overflows with texts to and from her many best friends and one ex-best friend — Brezzy says she's still not sure what went wrong between them — and another girl who according to Brezzy has dated eight boys in the past five days, and a boy who's been rejected by practically every girl in the school, and of course Brezzy's mother and her father and her older sister — identified in the phone logs as Bb, due to the fact that she was shot in the hand by a BB gun — not to mention the girl whose phone signature is I luv Chase Soooooo Much.
Reading through the inbox and outbox of Brezzy's texts is like skimming the rough outline of an epic novel.
Hey everyone i got dumped 2day
i almost killed myself over her. i was used . . .
chasity said something like why u looken at my boobs . . .
she lied to me!!!
The sweetest messages, without a doubt, are those between Brezzy and this eighth-grader who calls himself Joshua and The Old Testimate. The two of them have a routine. Every day, Brezzy tells him she's ugly. Every day, Joshua tells her otherwise.
No ur not. Believe me
Seventh grade, 13 years old. Wants to work with animals when she grows up. Decorates the outside of her silver phone with tiny, sparkly rhinestones. Prefers texting to calling because a) it's cheaper and b) she thinks it's "more personal."
Sabrina texts nonstop, mostly with other girls and certainly not with anyone resembling a boyfriend. She has her whole life to worry about romance, she says. No need to bother with that now.
Many of her texts are from her mother, who uses the wonders of technology to shower her daughter with motherly reminders.
I know do u have something overdue
After school, when her mother's still at work, she and Sabrina keep up a back-and-forth of texts, just so her mom can know exactly where she is.
i have 2 go 2 library, writes Sabrina.
ok be safe, answers her mom.
The phone is her mom's surrogate. As long as Sabrina's carrying it, she's never alone.
Thomas French wrote this story with the permission of both the students and their parents. French can be reached at (727) 893-8486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.