Illustration by Gabrielle Campbell

The teacher’s eyes shoot across the classroom, imploring for the sight of a phone. She spots a target, and rushedly approaches. The student looks up, and glances down once again, flipping the phone down in their lap. The teacher directly and shortly demands that they hand it over. The student glances down defeated, wanting to speak up, but doesn’t. He remains silent and hands it over, timidly. The class falls silent, and the awkwardness of the interaction looms until the teacher regains composure and continues with the lesson. 

A new norm is taking shape. “[This generation] is quieter, and more reserved. In a classroom, it gets quiet. It gets quiet when I stop talking, and you guys just seem to hold back,” said Bill McClendon, a psychology teacher of 30 years at Franklin. “I don’t know if it’s the phones or something else…I don’t necessarily blame the phones, but it feels like now in a class setting there is less [interacting].” This comes at a time when we, as Generation Z, are growing into leaders. That leads many to wonder what we will accomplish, what will make or break us, and what will distinguish us from the rest. Our identity in history will be made in the very near future as we enter adulthood and contribute to society for the first time.

Life is different now. We, as humans, are different now. Our footprint as an age group, in one solitary way, is already startlingly different: we are connected. The inventions of the cellular telephone and modern internet, and in turn social media, have indisputably transformed the way we communicate. In my studies on the topic, I interviewed five teachers and leaders of shaping our understanding of the world around us from different branches of teaching and ages and upbringings; and one sentiment echoed true through all of their minds. We have power in our hands. Dave Sherden, Anna York, Bill McClendon, Lisa Feuz, and Kate Moore: all of them remarked on how much information we hold at our fingertips. 

“We had three channels on television, a newspaper, and a couple of magazines. You guys have access to so much information, good and bad, accurate and inaccurate. It’s a challenge for you to distinguish that now, as you gain experience in it,” said Mr. Sherden. “We had these newsmen, and we trusted them…the elder statesmen, who the government used to lie through their teeth to us… I think now you guys have more access to finding information,” remarked Ms. Moore. We aren’t blind. We have the ability to see so much that no one else has been able to see, ever. Evidence shows that we haven’t done so well in knowing good from bad. A shooting took place in 2016 because a man saw a false news story saying Hillary Clinton used a pizzeria as a child slavery ring. It is clear to see that we are fracturing ideologically and becoming more segmented in our thinking. 

“It seems like the ‘relationship’ is more fragile. People are more willing to give up on others if they don’t [agree]…people have a mentality of ‘forget you,’” said Mr. McClendon. “Now,  it’s almost touching when I see acts of kindness. It’s almost like you guys are scared to talk to each other.” 

With the connectability of the internet, we are finding niches and smaller communities that think exactly like us, conditioning more seclusion from larger and larger groups. The counterculture culture Ms. York remembers from her youth is becoming a lack of culture altogether, and instead a formation of unique cliques that don’t mix. Ms. Moore depicted it perfectly, highlighting that the “way we make decisions and the crossing of ideological boundaries to find [a] compromise, you can visually see that we aren’t doing that as much now.”

We struggle mightily with our own self-image. Anxiety and depression are new problems we are learning to deal with, and it’s hard to find one thing to attribute to them. Some, like McClendon, point at pressure given to us from our parents and economics. The promotion of creativity he remembers and the version of the American Dream he chased were lost with the loss of the manufacturing middle class, and now we must be specialized before we hit high school in order to excel at what we want to get our jobs, or else someone else will take them. Others like Ms. York believe that the monumental problems we face due to the state of the world make up a big part of it, saying, “There’s a huge burden for you guys, of things we just punted down the road…problems we just hope you guys can magically solve that we didn’t, for whatever reason.” She even went so far as to say that we are “so much more aware of everything going on…and [you’re] overwhelmed, understandably so, not being able to focus, because there’s so much coming at you all the time.” We are a very important group, who needs to muster the energy to fix climate change and resolve new civil rights problems and reestablish the middle class worldwide. We have already experienced the largest recession since the Great Depression, mass shootings becoming a daily occurence, we are trying to stunt the rapid approaching of our planet’s death, and our country has been at war since we were born…

Today’s world is different. Mr. Sherden remembers, “My generation, we were kind of a selfish one.” Ms. Moore recalls that she lived “in a bubble, at a posh school, in a posh neighborhood.” Ms. Feuz missed the political debate by being an athletics kid, more interested in getting a grade. “We were more relaxed, and things moved slower,” Mr. McClendon reminisced. The awareness many have now isn’t able to change what they did or didn’t do. The division of age is found in that awareness of us at this moment, while we are growing. To build the tomorrow everyone needs, we have realized what measures need to be taken to get there. Our activism, from sit-ins to walk-outs, and our movements for change right now are key. Things may not be going the way they used to, but that’s because the world needs them to change. Mr. McClendon brings this up when he talks with his peers about “kids these days.” Ms. Moore advocates for students in all facets of her job. Ms. York works tirelessly to set up as many people as possible for success. Ms. Feuz is working on giving people that awareness that is needed in the classroom, and Mr. Sherden uses his platform to educate our generation in a truly efficient manner, more than willing to help the youth understand where all else, himself included, could have done better. We can be better, all of the teachers agreed. Simple fixes in persistence or lifting our heads from our devices were what our mentors had in mind for remaining on the right track.

This time is vital in the development of our culture’s identity. The road ahead is going to be rough, riddled with catastrophe and grief, but we’ll endure. The fate of the world and ourselves is in our hands, and we can’t let it slip. Those who have done it before, the ones who teach us how to approach society, believe in us. The world is calling, and we will answer.

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