For the past few days, like many Americans, I have watched my nest egg get tumbled along a path of peril and uncertainty. Needless to say, it has some new cracks, and I have suffered. I consider myself young, but I’m old enough to remember what happened in 2008. My friends and I were wee babes who had just entered the workforce after graduating college. I was working my dream job at a global hospitality company in Las Vegas, and my sister was wrapping up law school to move to Manhattan.
Then suddenly, everything changed. I lost my job and came home. I planned to take refuge in graduate school, and my sister mentored me from afar. Our family business had taken a hit, but we were still prodding along. My resourceful parents and the relationships they had built in the community kept our company alive. That is something I remember distinctly – leaders within tight ecosystems rising to the occasion and helping one another. I was fortunate enough to work in that business for about seven years, and it taught me a great deal about the power of community.
My life and career are very different now. I’m a public school teacher at a Title I high school in my home community. The job is energetically challenging, but delightful and illuminating. The past week of anticipating closures was a very difficult one for us. We didn’t want to be a risk factor in the spread of COVID-19, a term none of us will ever forget, but we also worried about our kids and their families. Much of our student population is food insecure, and families live paycheck to paycheck. Thankfully, our district was able to set up meal provisions for those in need.
But I have already seen the psychological effects that this global drama has had on my kids who come from some of the most vulnerable communities in the state. I remember being terrified as a young person equipped with a college degree, some savings, and professional parents to fall back on. My students have none of that. I can’t imagine the ripple effect this health and economic uncertainty is having on them, their parents, and extended families who already disproportionately suffer from numerous adverse life conditions related to prolonged stress and poverty.
One of the greatest inequities faced by working class families isn’t even financial. In the wake of a crisis, what young people often need most is the social-emotional support of emotionally healthy adults who have not lost hope. At 21, I confess I was unaware of the entire financial reality of the Great Recession. What I was acutely aware of was how worried I felt about my future. But I also remember how caring adults in my circle came to my rescue and filled my wells of resiliency with knowledge, love, and ideas.
I am scrambling to do the same now for my students using tools like Google Classroom and Zoom because I can say with certainty that their overwhelmed families who are fighting for survival are not in a position to do so. The kind of economic, food, health, and social-emotional insecurity we are facing disproportionately affects my students and their families, and the effects are both financially and emotionally debilitating. Over the past few days, my students have left me excruciating messages on our class page – “I am scared”…”School is the only place I am happy.” Some of my students live in environments of abuse and trauma, and I can’t even go there.
We are all waiting for a breath right now, for a curve to flatten, and peaks and valleys to soften. But if you’re here, trust me, you can take a breath with me. If you have a place to live, some food in the fridge, and supportive people to talk to, you can breathe. There are so many people in our immediate vicinities, though, who cannot. Especially young people, and we need to breathe and work for them.