Kerri lost everything on her laptop.
A hundred years ago, that would have meant she stood up and the apples she was peeling ended up on the floor; now it means the Apple on which she had stored her life has abandoned her.
She’s part of the new generation that believes it’s wasteful to print out one’s work. At 22, she teases me when I ask her to make hard copies of my essays, class notes, lectures, exams, and even letters, and file them in actual filing cabinets.
While she’s savvy enough to know that everything needs to be backed up and kept on one of those external hard-drives that look like a small but expensive Pez dispenser, she is also young, tight on cash, and busy enough not to do that for her own work very often.
And she is busy. My undergraduate assistant this year, Kerri is graduating this Sunday and then heading to Colorado to become part of Teach for America. I couldn’t be more proud of her or more miserable at the thought of her departure. She’s an “A” student, one of the managing editors of the literary magazine, the newsletter editor at the women’s center, an aspiring writer who sends out her own nonfiction as well as working with me (we did a piece together that’s coming out in next month’s Principal Leadership magazine discussing what older and younger teachers need to learn from each other), and finding a place to live in another state, she spends her time well—even managing to have what sounds like a riotously fun social life.
She lost most evidence of both her academic and non-academic existence, however, when the laptop—her only computer—died.
Calling me at home yesterday, she wasn’t weeping, but I could hear the bitter if laughing sense of utter despair in her voice. “It’s all gone. Gone, gone, gone. Even the amazing tech guy from upstairs couldn’t do anything about it. He seemed sad. It was like when the vet explains that a pet just won’t make it. There’s nothing to say.”
“Do you have any versions of it anywhere?” I asked, still hopeful.
“I have what I printed out. Final drafts only.” For writers, this is like having a book jacket without the book.
“And what about your papers for finals week? Do you have drafts of those somewhere, in email or something?” I asked, the concerned teacher.
“Yes, I have a few drafts. But honestly, I can write papers in two days. I don’t care about those.” I could hear her shrug. “It’s everything else I’m going to miss. The thousands of pictures, hundreds of pages of poems, stories, the journal entries. Stuff from my first writing class and the pieces I finally felt comfortable sending to publication. It sounds silly, but that computer was a part of me.”
“Well, you have printed pictures I’m sure you could get from other family members...” Still hopeful.
“Nope. Nope, nope, nope. All my family’s pictures were there—I’m the family photographer. And people keep saying, ‘oh, well you have pics on Facebook. Don’t worry!’ But its the pictures I chose to keep off Facebook that I’ll really miss. The ones that were moments accidentally caught on film, funny faces, and memories I didn’t want to expose to the world. I liked being able to stumble upon the pictures and writing ... it was like going through an attic and finding dusty old scrapbooks. Even though I didn’t use them every day, I still expected to have, even if only to make fun of later in life. Every email exchange, every dumb thought I had between 18 and 22 was is now nowhere. Most of it was never even on a piece of paper. Just pixels on a screen.”
“Didn’t you print out anything, just to see what it looked like?”
“I only printed what I handed in. That was all.”
Few things leave me speechless, but I had nothing to say. I’d once lost four months of work when a computer died; like Scarlett O’Hara swearing that she would never be hungry again, I vowed never to be in the same sinking boat.
Silently I thanked my own good fortune at having signed up (and saved my pennies) for one of those companies which (I am told) will keep my stuff safe in the ether or the cloud or the memory of one really smart guy who’ll be able to recite everything I have on my hard drive.
And I even more silently thanked my good fortune at having those filled-to-overflowing filing cabinets of paper and shelves of hand-written notebooks. The risk of fire is nothing compared to the risk of loss. And trees, after all, are a renewable resource.
Kerri’s intelligence and creativity are also an endlessly renewable resource, and she will replenish virtual pages and folders with new work as fast as you can say “external hard drive.”
But I suspect she’ll also start printing stuff out.