Landlines: One Reason the ’90s Were the Best Decade for Elementary School Romance

Chivalrous courtship, (in the elementary-school-aged-male sense of the word) isn’t dead, but it took a major hit during the latter half of the first decade of this millennium. It started when households began doing away with their home phones and choosing to exclusively use cellular phones.

With that one decision, the family itself lost a huge layer of its identity.

It used to be that in order to get through to a member of the household (or even someone who was just visiting for an afternoon), one was required to phone a single sequence of numbers that would in turn ring a phone that was picked up by whichever family member got to the (or a, for there were often more than one in the house) receiver and they either took the call or yelled out for whomever the call was for to pick up or come to the phone.

Two things.

One: the invention of wireless or as they were originally deemed, “cordless,” phones was a huge deal. For the first time in this history of telephoning, you could actually leave the kitchen and run upstairs to find a pen if you needed to jot something down or take the telephone to the person who was calling instead of trodding every which way throughout the house before finding them occupied or not home or telling them they must now scoot up to whichever room the receiver you picked up the call in the first place is lying off its cradle and awaiting their ear.

Two: let us recall the moment when the phone rang (note “the” phone “rang;” the article “the” denotes a singular phone, which is ringing, audibly, not vibrating or flashing or dinging. In those days, phones actually had to ring before they were answered.) Remember the way the house phone ringing made everyone aware of different things at the same time? It might have been an emotional response to what was expected to be waiting on the end of that phone call. It might have been annoyance. It might have been relief. Maybe another it was another creditor (cue anger and denial). Maybe father awaited word from a job interview that he had all day feared he’d botched because his limp handshake with the VP of the department  (a cast member in the drama of the play who had not been written into the script and therefore presented papa the challenge of ad-libbing, a feat that apparently took all the energy from his wrist and redirected it toward his blubbering mouth).

Or, and here is where I come to my point, it is a young school-aged boy calling, filled with the hope or (in most cases an even greater fire brewed in the form of) fear that one of the girls from a few rows back on the school bus or whom he had been partnered with to practice math problems is home and available to awkwardly converse, for he has spent the past hour locked in his room, clumsily thumbing his way through the inky newsprint of the phonebook and calling at as far from random as he could, the numbers listed at the end of a series of ellipses separating the street address and her last name in the hopes he would, at the end of his quest, reach her voice on the other end of the wire.

It’s ringing.

Her mom picks up and he slays that dragon with the high-pitched charm only a tubby third grader can muster. At last, she is on the line. He reviews his talking points, scribbled in pencil on the back of his math folder, and leads with the most obvious. “So, what’d you have for dinner?”

  Chivalrous courtship, in the elementary-school-aged-male sense of the word, thrived in the after-dinner-hour dialing of classroom crushes. Alas, as with so many facets of telecommunication from the pre-Internet age, that brand of courtship is dead.  

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