As I was revising my syllabus for my English composition classes at Ohio State University’s Lima campus during the summer, I decided to focus on the theme “Coming of Age during COVID.”
I had been using a generational theme centered on social media and Gen Z for the past three semesters, but after the peak of the coronavirus forced us to go to remote learning in March, along with the cancellation of spring sports and our commencement ceremony, I began thinking about how living through a pandemic is affecting young people in college and high school.
After the George Floyd protests shook the country with intense racial unrest in May, I knew concentrating on what my students are currently seeing and experiencing would be a great way for them to express their feelings.
One of the first articles that I assigned my students to read was a Forbes’ piece by Mark C. Perna titled “Why Is Gen-Z Feeling So Good About Life After COVID-19?” They strongly agreed with most of the findings in a Cassandra survey that the article referenced, especially with 45 percent of their peers in this poll believing that they need a bachelor’s degree to be successful in their careers and 60 percent not expecting to change their college plans.
Perna described Gen Z as “hardworking, focused on their goals and immensely practical – not so different from the Boomers before them.” My students are definitely focused, and the way the pandemic has affected their families and personal lives has caused many of them to mature much faster. They have had to make some tough life decisions having just graduated from high school.
Some of my students wanted to go away for college, but COVID caused them to rethink their plans and remain home. Many were concerned about the spread of the virus if they lived in dorms, and some also did not want to pay for living expenses on campuses with fewer in-person courses available and limited extra-curricular activities. Discussing Perna’s article with masks on in my classes, which are hybrid and Zoom recorded, accentuated the seriousness of our current times.
After finishing our introductory readings on how Gen Z is coping with COVID, I gave my students a brief history of the civil rights movement to provide them with a better understanding of why race relations in our country are still tense and why the national protests against police brutality represent an ongoing struggle from the 1960s.
I showed my students the recently released documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” which beautifully captured Lewis’ fervent spirit as a young leader in the civil rights movement under the tutelage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and ended with the inspiring political legacy Lewis left behind. Most of my students had never heard of Lewis, and I could tell they were in awe of his humble beginnings growing up picking cotton and raising chickens outside of Troy, Alabama.
In the film, my students saw how the church and Lewis’ faith in God was the firm foundation that shaped his views regarding social justice and racial equality. He firmly believed that the movement had to be inclusive with both blacks and whites working together to reach what King called a “beloved community,” in which unconditional love was the driving force to stamp out racial hatred and violence.
Two parts of the documentary we discussed in class that examined this perspective were the Nashville, Tennessee, sit-ins that resulted in the desegregation of the city’s lunch counters and Lewis’ break with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Footage of a 20-year-old Lewis saying that he still had to love the white people who were fiercely fighting to deny his right to be served in a public establishment was moving. His decision to leave SNCC was based on his Christian beliefs after the organization shifted to the more radical Black Power movement.
Lewis saying that he never shouted “Black Power!” due to his conviction that power needed to be shared by all deeply resonated with my students. They were in amazement at how Lewis could remain so positive and resilient in a time when African Americans were blatantly treated as second-class citizens.
The “Good Trouble” documentary allowed my students to see that Lewis’ legacy has provided people with hope that many have not given up on our nation’s ideals. This hope is truly needed now with COVID hovering over us, but I am encouraged as my students are deeply thinking about their futures. They understand the challenges they face but are confident their generation can make an indelible impression on the world.
Jessica A. Johnson, an Athens native, is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc
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