Before There Was Social Media

In schools around the country, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and other forms of easy electronic communication have become so embedded in everyday culture that—especially for kids—it’s difficult to imagine a time when it wasn’t a part of their daily lives.

However, it really wasn’t so long ago that school kids everywhere had to make do with a medium that was decidedly unelectronic. And, no, it wasn’t smoke signals or flag semaphore or even a quick word or two whispered in the hall. It was—wait for it—passing written notes.

It’s likely that anyone under the age of 30 who’s reading this is scratching their head and thinking, “Passing written notes? What’s that all about?” Well, it happened to be an entire school oriented subculture. One that was so commonplace and widely practiced in grade and high schools across the country that teachers and school administrators often thought an epidemic was plaguing their student population.

Every day, in every school, kids passed artfully folded paper notes that were decorated with hand-drawn flowers and hearts and emblazoned on the surface with the recipient’s name in fancy, calligraphy-like cursive.

These missives were creased and folded into improbable shapes and patterns that would bring even a paper-folding master of Japanese origami to his knees. En route to their recipients, notes were always carefully concealed and then passed quickly, hand-to-hand, in hallways between classes, or perhaps carefully slid from desk to desk on the floor hidden under a foot.

In the boldest of maneuvers (and usually by boys), they were folded into a triangle and sent sailing across the classroom when the teacher’s back was turned. The triangle shape made it handy to play “paper football” by thumping the note with the middle finger over an imaginary goal. And they weren’t 140-character “tweets” or hastily dashed off messages, either.

Many of them were the product of hours of late-night crafting at home, composed from the heart with painstaking care. They contained news about passionate crushes or betrayed feelings, reviews of the latest TV shows, chatter about a hideous outfit that someone was wearing, or what someone allegedly said about someone else. In all, it was pure Americana.

Ask any high school student whether note passing should be revived, and you can pretty much predict the response. They’d tell you we’ve come a long way from such an archaic tradition. Nevertheless, we former note passers might reply to the contrary and ask, “Have we really?”

Did You Know? 

Among the many perils of note passing in middle or high school classrooms was the dreaded danger that the teacher would actually intercept the note as it was on its way to the recipient. And what was the typical punishment? The teacher commanding the note passer to stand in front of the class and read it aloud. Could anything have been more embarrassing? It was an effective deterrent, to be sure!

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