Opinion: Young will be pandemic’s storytellers

At the beginning of each semester at Kent State, where I teach in the journalism school, I make a point of opening my arms wide and saying to students, “Welcome to your adulthood.”

The frequency of alarmed faces affirms both my suspicions and my intentions.

I teach mostly juniors and seniors, and so they’re already in their early 20s. They’re still full-time students, and most of them are also holding down one or two hourly wage jobs to be able to afford school and housing. So, in some ways, they already know what it feels like to be out in the world and working hard.

But with rare exceptions, they’re not living the lives for which they hope to be training. That’s where I come in, twice a week in class and in various interactions outside the classroom. It’s my job to do whatever I can to help them get to their dreams. “Think of it as practice rounds for your professional life,” I tell them.

I want full sentences in students’ emails, which start with a courtesy title and are always signed. I ask for correct grammar and no abbreviations in texts to my phone. This may seem archaic to some, but as I always remind them, their future employers tend to be older. Also, good manners never hurt and often help.

I also want my students to become accustomed to showing up to class on time and meeting deadlines; that’s what every employer will have the right to demand of them after they graduate. The ability to maintain a routine can build confidence — in my students and in their future bosses.

Don’t give them reasons to dismiss you, I tell them. For all that has changed in the world, early impressions can help or hurt a career.

All of that made so much sense before this pandemic. It still matters, but our students are struggling in new and bigger ways. It’s one thing to be an adult in an established career trying to work at home. It’s quite another when you’re a high school or college senior on the brink of the rest of your life.

This is particularly true for seniors in both college and high school. Overnight, it’s as if someone hit pause on your life, and suddenly everyone around you is talking about how to stay alive.

Some of my students have siblings who are high school seniors, and it’s moving to see how much they worry for their sisters and brothers who’ve lost the end-of-year rituals of proms and parties and end-of-high ceremonies — including graduation.

The last weeks till college graduation are even more fraught, with internships and rite-of-passage rituals evaporating. What so many of my seniors have talked and written about is the heartbreak of ordered abrupt departures, with no lingering goodbyes to people they’ve come to love.

Even for those who’ve been counting the days until they could leave, there are rituals of finality. The last class. The last packed box. The last time you leave a room, an apartment, a parking lot. It’s the punctuation of departure. It makes it feel real and earned.

If you’re tempted to dismiss all of this as the whining of youth, I fear you’ve forgotten what it means to be young. I recommend chasing down those memories of your earlier time and clutching them to your heart. You left some of your best parts back there.

One of the hardest aspects of this pandemic for teenagers and young adults is this constant emphasis on death. Few of my students fear for their own lives, but they are obsessed with protecting the lives of older family members. This does not surprise me. In my four years of teaching, the most common theme for the first personal essay is about a beloved relationship with a grandparent.

“I would never forgive myself if I gave this to my grandma,” one student told me earlier this week. His grandmother has preexisting conditions, and so he is staying out of hug’s way even when dropping off groceries on her porch. She pleads with him to visit.

“I say to her, ‘I love you too much to stay,'” he told me, close to tears.

These young people in our lives and in our world. They will be the storytellers of this pandemic, which is going to change the course of our country for decades to come. They will remember our mistakes, and they will determine who we will be.

Our future — the one we hope to see, and the one that will continue long after we are gone — couldn’t be in more capable hands.

— Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with Creators Syndicate.


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