My Impossible Quest to Teach My Mom the Language of the iPhone

Sooner or later you have to start parenting your parents.

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Jan 29 2015, 3:15pm

Photo via Flickr user Lee Bennett

Last week my mom told me that she had, in her words, "gone viral."

"I was on the internet," she lamented, as though she'd just found out her number had been scrawled in a truck stop bathroom stall. "They were talking about me on Facebook."

"Who's 'they'?" I asked, genuinely concerned. My mom does not have Facebook.

"Three different people. They told me at work." She was whispering, paranoid. "They were saying I was a good teacher or something." And there it was: The undeniable reality I had been avoiding for years was now inescapable. My mom had lost all grasp of contemporary communication. It was time to get her an iPhone.

I'm not sure why I expected her to be excited. It took me two years to get her to respond to "those envelope things" (text messages), which she claimed to have "hung up on" because she "thought they were ads." Still, it was uncalled for when she responded to the Verizon guy's mention of the App Store by squawking, "I don't have time for this!" Before I could apologize for her, said Verizon guy, apparently well versed in such nonsense, saw his in. "You should take our iPhone class," he said.

"I can't. I'm still learning how to use my new car, and—"

"She would love to." I took a schedule, and told my mom she better behave if she wanted to go to Souplantation after this.

In the days leading up to my mom's first (and, hopefully only) day of iPhone school, I was as nervous as I assumed she was. I hoped the teacher would be nice. My nerves turned to fear, however, when the big day was approaching and she still hadn't returned any of my calls or texts. Did she even remember she had an iPhone? Was she OK? Was this what she'd meant on those countless midnights when I'd slipped quietly in through the back door after having ignored her pages to find her pacing frantically in her nightgown, assuring me that someday I'd know how she felt?

The fact that I didn't know whether she was going to iPhone school was exactly why I needed to know that she was going to iPhone school, and so, after three days of radio silence from her, I resorted to the only sensible action: waking up at 6 AM on a Sunday to drive 45 miles to my hometown so that I could kidnap the woman who made me and ensure that she took advantage of the education being offered to her at the Verizon store across from the Walmart.

"What are you doing here?! I'm not going!" She had apparently forgetten the six years when those same sentences, screamed by me and occasionally accompanied by thrown shoes, had left her unconvinced that I should not have to go to school.

"Get dressed. You're going to be late."

"I don't want to go to that stupid class."

"I'll be in the car. Don't make me honk."

Jesus. Did she think I wanted to go to to that stupid class? Daughtering is a thankless profession. Eventually, though, she got in the car.

My mom, en route to her first day of iPhone school

The first surprising thing about the class was that it was actually happening. There were three rows of mostly filled chairs. Even though it was only 8 AM, "Great Balls of Fire" blared over Bluetooth speakers, free coffee was served in styrofoam cups, and a fresh box of donuts had been laid out. They had perfected their old people bait.

Karla, one of the teachers, greeted us at our seats. She eyed me suspiciously. "Two of you?"

"Oh, oh, no. Just her. I'm just here with her."

Immediately after saying this, I realized that my mother was a solid 20 years younger than everyone else in the class, and the only one who had arrived with an aide-slash-kidnapper.

After commencing class with a playful, "All right kids," Karla and her partner Joanna tackled the first item on the agenda: the control screen. They stressed the importance of making sure the "Do not disturb" button wasn't pressed, and explained that this was likely the culprit when "Your family has been trying to get a hold of you for three days and you had no idea." I chuckled knowingly and half expected an "amen" to ring out from the students before remembering that I was a stranger in a strange land.

I was disappointed, when we moved onto texting, to find that my mom's eyes had already glazed over. "Pay attention. This is important," I hissed. After a few misguided attempts to properly hold the message icon long enough, however, she was able to successfully send her first picture message: a photo of me, sans makeup, with her finger partially covering the lens. She's capable of so much when she applies herself.

Up next was a 15-minute lesson on using AirDrop, which was where the class went off the rails. Karla and Joanna droned on about sending electronic business cards via The Cloud, without once explaining what The Cloud was. Despite the fact that their students were responding to questions with statements like, "It just left my phone for no reason," they soldiered on with their predetermined lesson plan.

"I stopped paying attention," my mom confided, unnecessarily. I should have told her and the flustered elderly that all of this was like Algebra 2—you never actually use it in real life. But Karla and Joanna had already moved onto Bluetooth, and every old person was left behind.

When asked if they knew what Bluetooth was, one student raised his hand and volunteered, cryptically, "Someone's controlling it." This seemed to be a clear indicator that Bluetooth should have been saved for the intermediate class, but Karla and Joanna were bound to the Verizon store's educational standards, and plowed full speed ahead.

What came next was a litany of products that these people didn't know better than to know that they didn't need: headsets, remote security cameras, the "Great Balls of Fire" speakers—all available at a special "in class" discount. I could not believe that my hard-earned Verizon bill dollars were paying for this exploitative claptrap.

Class was finally over, and, as my mom meandered back out into the real world, it seemed from the way that she stared, puzzled, her home screen, that she at least knew enough to know what she didn't know, and perhaps this is the most you can expect from a public Verizon education. Now I understand why some kids choose to homeschool their parents.

I wanted to get going on my long Sunday run before it got too warm, but I still wasn't satisfied that the class had taught my mom the importance of spending her life perpetually glued to her tiny computer.

So, realizing the importance of making learning fun, we used FaceTime to talk to my niece, who is three, and recently posted a picture of herself on Facebook.

I told my mom that her homework, while I was on my run, was to log in to the Words with Friends account that my brother had created for her. She asked me if I was wearing sunscreen.

I had put on sunscreen. What I hadn't done was remember to properly hydrate. It was also now high noon and the Santa Ana winds siphoned the moisture out of me in 85-degree gusts. It was like taking a leisurely jog through a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. I powered through 11 miles of what I intended to be an 18-mile run, jogging on the side of farm roads as tractors and cars swerved to avoid me and getting just far enough away from town to ensure that there would be no viable water source in sight. I became lightheaded and faint. I checked my phone. It was about to die. I considered that a swampy drainage ditch might be an OK place to take a quick mid-run nap, and then admitted that it was probably time for a mission abort. I used the last minute of my phone's battery life to call my mom and tell her to come get me.

I'm glad she picked up.

Follow Tess Barker on Twitter.

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