earlier this week, a student of mine asked me to fix her phone screen, but the mission was a failure.

i suggested she take it to the store because it was still under warranty. a couple of days later, i asked her what the status of her phone was.

“i’m so sad,” she said, streaking her finger down her face simulating a tear drop. her mother wouldn’t take her to the store until the weekend, and it was wednesday.

“but don’t you feel good not being tethered to it?” i asked, hoping there was a bright side to all of this. whenever i lose my phone or i’m out camping somewhere, the first day is always the hardest. but each day after gets much easier, and i actually start to feel more relaxed and less — as the kids say — triggered.

being away from the network feels like a vacation from work. keeping my opinions about other’s political posts to myself and staying current with the latest memes is hard work.

“well, it feels good and bad,” she replied. her eyes shifted right to left, avoiding eye contact. “like, i don’t contribute to society, you know? i’m useless.”

useless? how?

“what do you mean? you’re not useless.”

“i am, though. i’m not uploading pictures, i don’t have snapchat. i just sit in my room, and i don’t contribute anything.”

there’s a moment in dune, my favorite book, when paul atreides drinks the water of life and gains the power of prescience — the ability to see not only the future but the consequence of every action.

when my student explained to me what her smartphone meant to her, it was like i became woke — i had suddenly tapped into the consciousness of an entire generation.

i finally understood what it means to be a milennial.

back in the day when i was in high school, the adults barraged us with college talk. “go to college!”

“you must, you must, you must!”

to be an active and contributing member to society in those days, you needed a degree. anything else was failure. and as an asian-american, that pressure was increased ten-fold. it was common for korean parents to brag about their children at gatherings.

“my son is going to berkeley.”

“mine is going to westpoint.”

that’s probably why my parents stopped being social around my senior year. how could they bear the shame of telling their friends that their eldest son wasn’t even going to graduate?

i hope they don’t feel ashamed of me now, especially with how things turned out. their son became a teacher. the kid who dropped out of high school and college is now telling other kids what to do.

c’est la vie.

and the hardest thing about being a teacher in today’s high school is getting students motivated. when i talk about college, they don’t seem moved. when i warn my failing students about the perils of not graduating, they shrug their shoulders and walk away unphased.

the one thing they treasure — the one thing they’re passionate about? they’re always on their phones. always snapchatting, taking pictures, texting their friends to meet them at the bathroom.

it’s why i instituted a no-phone policy this year. a zero-tolerance no-phone policy.

i didn’t realize what i was taking away from them.

that’s because i got my first phone in college — a nokia that had one game, snake. it was used to call people. i don’t know why i got one. i never used it.

but cellphones have become something huge. they allow us to communicate in emergencies. they help us plan, socialize, and stay abreast of news.

and for kids of this generation, it’s a way to promote themselves. they contribute to society — globally — with selfies, memes, and tweets about how they feel in a pinpoint moment of time. they entertain, they teach, and they make themselves known.

most of my friends don’t post or share anything online. my facebook feed is the same 20 people. the majority of my friends work hard and put everything they have left into their families. i never felt like i was an outlier until now. i’m active on social media, but i always felt like i needed to be because i’m a tech-nerd.

maybe i was looking at it all wrong.

i share news, i post things that make me laugh, and i write about my life because — because i feel like i’m contributing.

i’ve told anyone, everyone who would listen that i don’t understand my kids — i don’t understand their entitlement, their brashness, their values. they only see what’s in front of them, and they miss the big picture. they put so much value in their feelings, and they count their worth in fortnite wins.

i just described myself.