Kate Leipprandt recalls her first glimpse of the future of teens' communication.
"My daughter texted me, and I thought, 'Well, what's this?'" said the Arlington Heights mother of two. "Then I got the bill and I said, 'We're not doing this anymore.'"
As it turns out, however, the family is doing it. Because Kate came to recognize texting as the quickest, surest way to reach her high school-age children.
But what about e-mail, which not only is more familiar to most parents but also remains the primary form of communication in office settings? Could e-mail be going the way of the telegram? The stamped letter? The rotary phone?
It's not that suburban teens never use e-mail. When compelled to communicate with adults who - bless their technology-challenged hearts - don't know any better, teens will resort to the technology of yesteryear.
"In one of my classes, my teacher will let you turn a paper in by 9 o'clock at night and it'll count as credit for that day," explained John Hersey High School freshman Ali Manno, "so you can e-mail him the project when you're at home."
Other teens confirm that they utilize e-mail only for what they identify as business purposes, when they're dealing with adults or no other mode of communication makes sense.
"The only time I'll check my e-mail is if I want to look at stuff for college, to see if they've sent me anything," said Amy Hagedorn, a new Prairie Ridge High School graduate bound for Illinois State University this fall.
In other words, high school and college students don't mind using e-mail as a bridge with older adults. But when it comes to social communication, most view e-mail as Samuel Morse viewed the Pony Express - yesterday's news.
"They wouldn't get (an e-mail) when you want them to get the message," said Manno's friend, Caitlin Neilson, also a Hersey freshman. "You want to talk about something that happened today, but it'd be like a week later that they'd get it."
Which, teens say, is why they rely instead on cell phone text messaging, computer instant messaging and Web-based social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.
'Wherever I go'
Texting is by far the most popular because, as Neilson noted, "I have my phone with me wherever I go."
That ubiquitous presence, Leipprandt realized, could work to her advantage. Like many other parents of teens, she had been asked by her son and daughter to refrain from leaving voice-mail messages; they won't take time to retrieve and listen to them.
Texting, though, was different.
"I discovered that they always got it, always read it and always responded," Leipprandt said.
So Leipprandt set up texting for the entire family, including husband Doug, and recruited her kids to train them.
"I'll text something to my son like 'Where are you; it's almost 12 o'clock?' and he'll text back: 'I'm just dropping off Spencer and then I'll be home,'" she said.
Not all parents have embraced the technology; some struggle with even the idea of typing on tiny cellular keypads. Not so with adolescents.
"They're a heck of a lot faster at it than we are," laughed Michael Burke, who teaches honors English at Wheeling High School. "They're no longer passing notes in class. What you see, instead, is a kid's body kind of freeze a little bit when you look at him, and he's got one hand hidden in his book bag, and that little wrist is flicking as fast as it can go."
"Kids are amazingly connected," said Susan Carley, head of Buffalo Grove High School's English and Fine Arts division. "We have a cell phone ban in the classroom. The minute the bell rings at 2:50, the cell phones come out."
Barrington High School associate principal Stephen McWilliams described a recent bus trip on which he accompanied students to Navy Pier: "You sit in the front and look back, and you'll see about 50 students. They've all got their phones out, and most of them are texting."
Well, that depends, to an extent, on gender.
Boys, Leipprandt observed, limit texting largely to making social arrangements - nailing down the who, what, when and where of an evening's activities. Girls, she said, text for that purpose, too, but also text for broader social discussions: How'd your date go? How are you feeling? Did you ask him to prom yet?
Hagedorn's friend, Maddy Kulisek, also a recent Prairie Ridge grad, agrees.
"I'll text my girlfriends way more than guys," Kulisek said. "Guys are more about, 'What's going on tonight; what are we doing?'"
How do teens decide when to text, when to instant message and when to use Facebook?
Texting dominates, they say, because they always have their phones.
But when they're at home, Neilson, Manno and friends explained, the school-night routine is to open up one computer window for homework and a second for instant messaging.
Facebook is good, said Hersey freshman Nicole Thomsen, because "you can send bumper stickers and random little sticker comments to each other; that's kind of cool."
Hersey freshman Julie Mustain explained another use for Facebook: "If you meet someone at like a camp you go to over the summer, then Facebook is a really good way to talk."
Texting's prevalence has created challenges for educators, who prefer not to be heavy-handed but recognize potential problems. Academic integrity tops the list.
"They're so good at (texting)," McWilliams said. "They hold the keypads directly beneath their desks so that it's pretty hard to pick up on."
Brian Lichtenberger, associate principal for operations at Wheeling High School, agreed.
"I think it's replacing what used to be happening in the hallway," Lichtenberger said, "when Johnny and Suzie would pass each other and one would say 'Make sure you studied that section because it's on the test.' Now that's happening via text messaging."
Burke, the Wheeling English teacher, said parents should also know that teens' ability to communicate constantly doesn't always make for efficient studying, either.
"It's taking some kids five hours to do their homework, cause they're doing five different things at once," Burke said. "I don't think parents understand the magnitude of what's going on."
Educators recognize that texting is here to stay and that it's up to them to shape it into a constructive force.
Carley said her department has tapped into students' affinity for newer communication platforms by setting up blogs, online discussion threads and Google docs, enabling students to share and comment on one another's ideas and papers at any time.
"I'd love to figure out how to use text messaging for an educational purpose," Carley said. "I know there are things out there; I'd love to hit on what it is, because we see these ways of communicating as different kinds of literacies, literacies that even our youngest teachers don't have."
Is e-mail dead?
Despite isolated interest by adults like Carley in finding broader applications for texting, students might graduate into a business world that still favors e-mail.
Obviously, young people can handle the lower-tech format. But they might need to clean up abbreviations, lowercase spellings, lack of punctuation and other shortcuts that characterize texting.
Joel Whalen is academic director of the Center for Sales Leadership at DePaul University, which requires undergraduates to undergo training in effective business communication.
Graduates entering professions, Whalen said, need to know e-mail decorum. They should know when to e-mail and when to pick up the phone or walk across the office to talk face to face.
They must understand, too, Whalen said, that professional associates may be less tolerant of the informality that goes with texting.
"These young people have been communicating with people who know them, with family and friends," Whalen said. "As they move into the business world, they'll be communicating with people who don't know them and don't love them."