One reason that I have loved instructing college English for over two decades is because I relish getting to know the students and hearing about their lives. When I first began to teach, I was only a few years older than the bouncing baby freshmen and younger than most non-traditional students. Then, I felt a kinship with the 18-to-22 year olds. In more recent years, however, I have gone from teaching students from my generation, X, to teaching Millennials. At first, the students were so on the cusp of the two generations that the difference was indiscernible; in the last few years, though, that has changed. I am getting older and am feeling the generation gap. While I grieve the increased sense of disconnect, such as when the students don’t understand my pop cultural references or were born after or toddled through a period of “history” that I remember clearly or I own a clothing item that pre-dates their existence, I, at the same time, appreciate that our learning experience together is still bilateral. Among other lessons, today’s young adults teach me that even though change is perhaps the slowest animal ever created, there is still good reason to hope for a better tomorrow. As we become increasingly immersed in the holiday season, I thought that it might be warming to share some of my observations and experiences from this Fall 2016 semester. In addition, I have always felt that generations are labeled too early. I say this as a member of the generation originally known for its slacking and desire for immediate gratification –so Millennials, I am sending early good press your way!
In English composition over the past few years, several students per term have chosen to address the pervasive problem of police brutality. In first-semester composition at Purdue University Northwest, where I teach, in one assignment, students are required to write about an issue from three perspectives in an informative manner. They often find it difficult to remain objective and feel the urge to take a position and argue it. This semester was no different. I had three students in one class alone pick the subject; however, one student in particular, a traditional-age, African-American male, wrote about police brutality in such a way that he was so fair to all parties involved, so empathetic toward the experiences of police officers, that I was dumbfounded by his ability to be, considering that he stated that as a young black man, he would be “afraid to be pulled over by the police.” Later in his paper, he maintained that the United States is “too amazing” to go backward, and that we, as a society, need to “join arms” to solve this issue and others, together. When I conferenced with him over his rough draft, I told him that considering the racism that was made obvious by the U.S. presidential election results and in the form of increased hate crimes from the elementary school-level to adult since November 8th, I felt heartened that he could be as optimistic as he is about America and if he could have such a positive attitude regarding our society, perhaps I could too. I actually thanked him for his uplifting words.
I also taught a transgender student, an undocumented immigrant enrolled through DACA, and a Muslim student who wears a head scarf. When I was a child, my parents strongly encouraged me to temper my insatiable curiosity with politeness, so often times, I have relied greatly on observation, reading students’ writings, reading literature – the educator of the soul, and outside research to inform my perspectives about people, issues – the world. In these instances, however, for sundry reasons, I asked the students questions. All three were happy to engage in frank discussion with me. My Muslim student, whom I’ve known for almost three years, and I discussed her head scarf. I was saddened to learn that some of her friends had decided to take their scarves off after the presidential election out of fear of hate crimes. She, though, has not. After our conversation, she said, “Ask whatever questions you want. I wish that more people would.” The other two individuals were equally as welcoming and forthcoming.
Millennials, it seems, have grown up more informed about today’s societal issues than generations past. With different influences, access to the Internet, increased emphasis on such values as cooperation and volunteerism, and due to factors such as their generation being the most affected by divorce to date, growing up during the Great Recession, knowing mostly a post-9/11 world, and one in which mass shootings have become commonplace, they seem more focused, adamant, and savvy in their approach toward solving problems than previous ones. I have eighteen-year-old males who honor their fathers, advocate for equal pay for women, and want to see an end to domestic abuse. I have eighteen-year-old females who advocate for use of Fair Trade products, to save endangered bees, and to stop seeing breastfeeding in public as inappropriate. I have white students, male and female, who feel “rainbow on the inside,” acknowledge privilege, and desire a world in which all races are equal. And I applaud these Millennials and look forward to when they are leading the USA and make the world a better place for their children (my grandchildren? Gulp…) in a post-Trump era.
This holiday season, let us remember to celebrate the young people who have so much to offer our todays and tomorrows!