I never had to ask my parents for a cell phone because one was given to me without much notice. While my friends spent much of their teen years begging for one every Christmas/Hanukkah and birthday, mine was presented to me during an evening discussion at the dining room table. My father had recently purchased one for work and after considering that his daughter had just started the sixth grade, he decided that I should have one too.
The tiny black phone had a cumbersome leather case that I remember seeing in many 90s films as a kid. There were exactly three numbers in the address book: my father’s phone number, our home phone number, and my grandparents’ number. My father’s instructions for the phone were simple. Everytime it rang, I was to pick it up. I was to call the other grownups in the address book in the event that I couldn’t get ahold of him, and no one else.
I was the only one of my peers to even have a cell phone, so there weren’t many people I could be calling up during lunch period. Given that this was a time before it was more or less common to see children, or even teenagers, with cell phones, I remember being quite embarrassed about mine. I didn’t want to be seen with it by the other kids because of the attention it would garner, and so I made my first few cell phone calls from deep within the girls’ restroom — barricading myself in the stall and waiting until all the voices were gone and the sinks stopped running.
My father’s timing was rather perfect, as with the beginning of middle school brought new social opportunities. Waiting around on the playground to be picked up by my family was no longer the routine, as between math and English classes came invites — notes passed in fourth period about wanting to walk to the movies after school or maybe to the new Starbucks on the corner. I think that perhaps I was one of those first few kids who called their parents from a mobile device and asked if I could change plans — if they could get me later. Wandering off campus was something to be expected given my age, but a cell phone in my back pocket assuaged my family’s anxiety about where I was, who I was with, and where they could find me.
My father is also a fairly scatterbrained, perpetually late individual, as I was always one of those kids reading on the bench in the corner well after five p.m. His car would be the one that would come last, pausing with the engine still on as he ran up to playground to fetch me. His job was demanding and he was always getting tied up with other grown ups at his office, and so a cell phone, he assured me, could benefit me too. Walking out of class, I would sometimes find messages from him saying that he would be later than he expected, that I should find something else to do until someone could get me.
Having a daughter gingerly approaching her teen years, my father says now, was also a big part of his decision. The predatory interest in boys begins to wane as they get older, but it only escalates with young girls as they become teenagers. He and my other family members may not have been there to fend of kidnappers, but the cell phone did assuage their worry about me encountering one. My father didn’t like the idea of his only daughter wandering around searching for a pay phone in case of an emergency, fumbling with change in my boney hands and asking grownups if they had change for a dollar.
A cell phone gave me the autonomy as a little girl that meant I didn’t have to engage with adults about anything, presenting fewer opportunities for someone with ill-intentions to befriend me — or atleast try to.
It wasn’t until several years later that cell phones became ubiquitous with teen life, as by the end of high school, it seemed that all my peers had one. By then, it had fallen into realm of status symbol, an accessory that could be peaking out of one’s purse or jean pocket to send a very specific message. But regardless of the parental debate about when to introduce cell phones — the message they send and when it’s age appropriate — I’ll always remember sneaking around to the back of the science building before class with mine to ask my dad if I could go to the movies.