By Carrie Crockett
(April 23, 2020) NEW ORLEANS
Dear Gen. Z,
Things have gotten very dark, very fast. In a little over a month, we went from hearing about something called coronavirus (or COVID-19) on the news as something that shut down Carnival in Venice, Italy to watching New Orleans, and most of America, go on lockdown--no school, no work, no seeing friends or visiting family. We have lost members of our own school community, and we know we haven’t reached the peak yet.
When you were very small, the city went through some of this with Hurricane Katrina--loss of life, uncertainty for months (years, even). Your parents and teachers went through some of this with 9/11--chaos and uncertainty that changed us forever, loss of life on American soil, a new world of security and fear to learn to navigate.
But almost no one alive today has been through something quite like this. The Spanish flu pandemic ended in December 1920, so maybe you have great-grandparents still around who lived through this as very small children. They would have to be more than 100 years old to remember any of it.
None of your teachers, principals, or parents have ever been through anything quite like this.
This is not easy for any of us, whether we’re 16 or 60. It is something none of us is likely to forget. But those of you who are experiencing this in your teenaged years are in a uniquely impressionable age to do so. Younger children may not remember all of it, and although we learn until we die, adult brains aren’t as pliant as yours.
For some reason, I keep thinking about my grandmothers, born in 1917 and 1921. They were teenagers during the darkest days of the Great Depression. As long as they lived, they both carried not only memories, but even habits, of those days with them. No matter how much financial security they had by the time they were grandmothers, they both counted what they spent down to the penny. They bought the generic brand at the grocery when they could have easily afforded a name brand. They told me I was spoiled when I complained about the brand of ketchup garnishing hot dogs they fed me.
“When I was growing up,” my mother’s mother once retorted to my complaint, “sometimes we had nothing to eat but ketchup sandwiches for a couple days.” She was fighting tears when she said this. My lack of understanding her experience had made her cry.
Though it might have seemed odd and even stingy to me as a child who missed the Great Depression by 50 years, I realize now that my grandmothers brought hard-won lessons to their daily life that I’m using now in my own. I have been thinking about them a lot right now when I’m rationing the eggs in the refrigerator to get through a week without having to go out for more, or when I’m turning a handful of freezer-burned fish sticks and broken tortillas into fish tacos. I know that I’m lucky to have groceries at all and that some on my street are relying on good Samaritans to drop food off when they can.
I realize my grandmothers were tough and wise, and the habits they learned as teenagers during the Depression helped guide them through the World War II years a decade later. It shaped them into the kind of women who saved their money for the future and left something behind for their grandchildren even though they were not wealthy.
As a child of the go-go ‘80s and a teenager of the dot.com boom, this is a wisdom I, myself, have not come by naturally. My Boomer parents, children of the freewheelin’ 60s, weren’t exactly pillars of wisdom or restraint, either. I realize now how much my parents and I always relied on my grandmothers--they were naturally good at saving for the future and living each day with a patience and calm that could only have come from having lived through a prolonged period of crisis.
But despite coming of age during the Depression, even they didn’t live through a pandemic--that was their parents. Will your generation bear the burden of living through a pandemic and a second Great Depression rolled into one? No one knows yet. Maybe this will pass quickly and the economy will spring back with only some bruises to show for it.
Whatever happens, you will likely carry whatever memories and coping strategies you gain from these days with you for a very long time. Maybe you’re grieving a loved one. Maybe you’re scared or increasingly depressed. Maybe you’re feeling angry or helpless. Maybe you’re grieving the lost plans you made for the rest of your school year--if this is your senior year, this is very probably the case. Maybe you’re just bored. Or maybe you’re enjoying the extra time on your own to explore your own passions and interests.
Without a doubt, you are all wiser. You’re young, you will spring back, life will go on eventually. But because of what you’re all dealing with as teenagers right now, you’re going to be a rock for future generations. Gen. Z no longer seems apt--you’re not an afterthought to X and Y.
The future is up in the air. When the dust settles, what will your rock of a generation build with it?