Road maps, off ramps, anxiety, hope, trust, and distrust in equal measure characterize the current mood at UNC. Even as we believe our colleagues in epidemiology, virology, and infectious disease, when they tell us that strict masking, distancing, and hand hygiene can allow for a residential semester on campus, we are deeply distrustful of 19, my shortcut for describing our undergraduate students, most between 18 and 21. They come from all over the country, not merely to get a degree, but to transform and, in so doing, to transform us. What happens on a college campus is a sort of magical alchemy when the classroom combines with other active elements: the dorm room conversation, dinner with friends in the dining hall, the walk across campus with a classmate, the after class conversation with a professor, or a late-night talk under a starry sky. I well remember 19.
At nineteen I saw my first glimpses of who I would become. I was a sophomore in college and on a lark volunteered for an afterschool program for kids living in nearby housing projects. It was my first recognition of systemic racism, although it would be years before I knew or understood that term. The experience interacted with a sociology class I was taking about social stratification. Because of the classroom, I saw my volunteer experience differently. The head and the heart began to intersect in ways that would lead me to my later career path. That same year, I fell in love and when I took that young man home to meet my parents at a special restaurant for dinner, I had glimpse, although fleeting, of what it would feel like to be part of a grown-up couple equal with my parents, friends instead of subordinates. By that summer, still 19, I studied abroad, after a heart break from which I thought I’d never recover. I had no enthusiasm for the trip wanting only to wallow in my misery. Yet, as I headed toward the gate, luggage checked, passport at the ready, my mother told me I’d never be the same. She was right. That summer I learned that the world is big, wonderful, and curious. My professors, ostensibly teaching me Spanish, taught me that I was following a “good girls’ script” when I regularly deferred to my male classmates in class discussion. They urged me to find my voice and use it. I’m still working on the Spanish, but the other lesson, I’ve learned pretty well.
My father was 19 when he went to war. Upon receipt of his draft letter, he requested and was admitted into the V-7 program that allowed him to finish college as long as he took courses that the Navy required of him. At 19, my dad had never left his home state of Missouri except to cross the Arkansas or Oklahoma border on occasion for a basketball game. His family meals consisted of whatever was fresh on the farm and the catch from the nearby river where he and his brothers loved to fish. At midshipman’s school at Columbia University, he met a fellow 19 in his barracks. An Italian, Catholic boy from Brooklyn whose family invited my father home for a meal so foreign, yet delicious he remembers it to this day. After a send-off at Riverside Church, he marched down 5th Avenue and was sent on to join the Pacific fleet. He and his shipmates and the Marines they carried, would secure the Marshal Islands while under fire for two years. They would repair their bombed ship with whatever they had at hand. As 19 turned to 20, my father took full responsibility for navigation when it became clear that the ship was dreadfully off course and that the head navigator could not do the necessary calculations to figure out, quite literally, where in the world they were. Together with so many other 19’s, 17’s, 18’s, and 20’s, they secured your freedom and mine.
Then there is the 19 that currently lives in my house. When we all came home in March for the lock down, he spent the first few days irritable, hard to be around. I remember breathing deeply and contemplating what a long quarantine it was going to be. I should know by now that these moods in my 19 generally mask a deep worry. Finally, he spoke. “Mom, if you and dad get sick and are in the hospital, how do I take care of C… [referring to his younger brother.]” My moody 19 was not grousing about the days lost with his friends on campus. He feared his ability to meet the moment if he had to. A few weeks ago, he announced his intention to protest the murders of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubry, and Breonna Taylor. My husband, who has taken our son to marches since he was 5, was livid. How could our 19 choose to risk our safety this way in a pandemic? Let’s take his car. Drain his bank account. Make him sleep in a tent in the backyard. As mothers do, I stopped my own yelling and jumped, figuratively, between son and father. Remember 19, I said to my husband. He only sees the need for justice. He can’t see your fear. He knows this is his generation’s moment to stand up and be counted. Try to be compassionate toward him. He’s just 19.
In some ways what I’ve written makes the case that so many of my contemporaries have put forward. We cannot rely on 19 to understand risk and to behave in ways that mitigate it, wear their masks, social distance, and skip the big party. But in other ways, 19 sees what 45, 55, 65 plus cannot. Nineteen sees the future that should be, nineteen sees that the generations behind them have missed the mark. Nineteen sees that unless they carry the torch no one else will and it is then that 19 steps up, in protest to tell us we must be better than we’ve been, in kindness and concern for the responsibilities they may have to carry before their time, and to use the knowledge we give them on campus perhaps to save us all. Two nights ago, at dinner, my almost 14 said something silly about wearing a mask. It was 19 that piped up and told him, “Wearing a mask is an act of altruism. You do it because you care about other people.”
Well said, 19. See you on campus.