The Selfie, Seen Through New Eyes

Feb 3, 2016

One day last fall I led a group of students from Pennsylvania State University on a walk through the Provincelands. The students were members of Bob Burkholder’s class on Cape Cod Literature, and each year he brings the class here for a week-long stay at the Wellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary.

I always enjoy taking Bob’s class for a walk. The students are usually bright, curious, and adventurous individuals. Even more, though, it gives me the chance to see the Cape through new eyes, to rediscover my own wonder at this place when I was their age. Most of the students had never been to Cape Cod before, and they had certainly never seen anything like the dunes of the Provincelands. Like most adults, they reacted to it like children to a giant sandbox. They leaped across and rolled down its massive flanks in the sheer joy of its breadth. They were fascinated by the wild cranberry bogs in the swales and delighted by the tart taste of the berries. When I showed them some of the rustic dune shacks that are managed now by non-profit organizations like the Peaked Hill Trust, they wanted to know how they could sign up for the lottery and have a chance to stay in one themselves.

When we reached the beach they were startled by the sight of several dozen gray seals swimming just offshore and looking at us with doleful eyes as intently as we were looking at them. Those of us who live here year-round have become inured, perhaps even blasé about the year-round presence of these seals on our shores over the past couple of decades, but the delight in the unjaded eyes of these young visitors made them new again to me.  

That evening, their last on the Cape before heading home for the holidays, I gave a reading for them at the Audubon sanctuary. In the past, students usually asked me to sign a book of mine that they were assigned to read for the course. But these were true 21st century students, digital natives. Most had forgotten to bring the book with them and instead asked me to sign scraps of paper that they said they would later paste into their books. What most of them wanted, however, was to have “selfies” taken with me. I obliged them, keeping my opinions about selfies to myself.

The last student to request a photo was a lovely young woman named Lexi. But instead of a smart phone, she pulled out a small camera whose entire case seemed to be made of light-blue rubber. She asked another student to take our picture, and when she had done so, handed the camera back to Lexi.

“Now watch,” she said excitedly, and pushed a button. Within a few seconds out of the top of the camera emerged a small Polaroid print.

“It’s a Polaroid,” I exclaimed, not having seen one of these in years.

“Yes,” said Lexi. "It’s made by Fuji Films. And look,” she said, handing the print to me and grinning broadly, "you can give it to someone! You can write on it!

“Amazing,” I said, then thought, but didn’t say, “What’ll they invent next – postcards?”