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A defining experience for a young generation

Eighteen teens sit at their desks in full first-day-of-school awkwardness: Eyes are wandering, hands fidgeting, yawns are being stifled.

Within minutes, the classroom at Notre Dame Preparatory School electrifies, backs straighten to attention, voices rise and everyone wants to be heard. The subject is Sept. 11, and opinions are flying. Teacher Ann Klaes explains how the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had much the same riveting effect on her when she was in high school.

"The assassination defined your generation, and this is what is defining ours," says Megan Isennock, a 17-year-old senior at the Catholic girls school in Towson.

All her classmates agree, including 17-year-old Zab Brotzman, who adds this prediction: "It's our reaction to the day rather than the day itself that will probably define our generation."

A few miles away on the campus of Goucher College the students are a couple of years older, but the mood is much the same. In Peace Studies 110, Assistant Professor Seble Dawit has never seen her college students more engaged in world events - or so eager to express their opinions.

"A year ago, we felt insulated. We were the country that bombed other people. Now it's come here. It's scary," says Allegra Johnson, a junior.

Goucher President Sanford J. Ungar sees the lingering impact of Sept. 11 on young people every day. In ways that are not always obvious, he says, his 1,150 undergraduates have changed their outlook, their sense of priorities, their world view. Not a day, not even a class, goes by in which Sept. 11 or related events aren't debated - sometimes casually, often passionately.

"There is no escaping it," Ungar says. "What's evolved is simply a more nuanced discussion, a long-term conversation. They have moved to introspection. They are learning things they didn't know they needed to learn a year ago."

Flashbulb memory

For Americans ages 13 to 30, the terrorist attacks and this country's response to them have been more than life-altering; they may prove life-defining. Just as their parents were shaped by the Vietnam War and Watergate, their grandparents by World War II or the Great Depression, they are beginning to sense how events have left a mark on their identity.

At an age when most people stitch together their fundamental political and cultural beliefs, these young men and women are dealing with something far more momentous than most had ever contemplated.

Before, they were seen as an ill-defined, frivolous, video-game-playing, Internet-chatting generation. Today, they are Generation 9/11, and exactly what that title means is only gradually coming into focus.

"My students had always felt quite deprived because they didn't have any generational identity," says William M. Tuttle Jr., a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas and author of Daddy's Gone to War: The Second World War in the Lives of America's Children. "Now they can say they really have one. They are learning what it is to grow up in a time of crisis."

Sociologists coined the term "flashbulb memory" to describe an experience so powerful that its imprint lasts forever. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy and the attack on Pearl Harbor are examples: People commonly remember where they were and what they were doing the moment they became aware of what had happened.

The events of Sept. 11 were as forceful, amplified by television and its graphic footage of planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the deadly aftermath.

Young people had few comparable moments before then. The Challenger disaster of 1986, when schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and six others astronauts died in an exploding space shuttle, came closest - particularly for children who watched the event live in their classrooms.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, when the dust had barely settled, there was fear and anxiety, dread and uncertainty, particularly for those closest to where they occurred. It was not uncommon for young people whose only connection to the event was through TV to feel threatened and depressed, says John T. Walkup, a child psychiatrist and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Rob Porter, a 19-year-old sophomore at Loyola College in Baltimore, remembers the days and weeks on campus after Sept. 11 when he and his fellow students seemed to draw closer together, dropping into dorm rooms to hang out and talk.

He remembers, too, the intense patriotism, which has gradually faded, leaving more a sense of uncertainty about the future than anything else.

"We think we might have made our sacrifice that day, but we haven't," says Porter, of Clarks Summit, Pa. "The future makes me nervous. It reminds me of the fall of the Roman Empire, where it wasn't a powerful rival empire but an inability to deal with how the world had evolved."

Turning points

Elaine Wethington, a medical sociologist and associate professor at Cornell University who has studied "turning points" in people's lives, sees a connection between the Kennedy assassinations and the rise of alienation and protest on college campuses. Then, too, the world suddenly seemed less safe.

"It seemed then that life changed at that moment," recalls Wethington, who was 13 when President Kennedy was killed in 1963. "The closer one is to an event, the more deep the emotional impact, the more likely it will be a turning point. I'm sure many young people in New York will remember it that way. Whether that's true for young people elsewhere will depend on whether 9/11 has a real impact on how they live their lives."

Although the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor created an indelible memory for many Americans, the generation that came of age in the 1940s was far more affected by the resulting conflict, says Tuttle, who interviewed 2,500 people for his book on World War II-era children.

"It was air raids and blackouts and rationing and the departure of fathers and the loss of other male members of their families," he says.

'What really matters'

Glen H. Elder Jr., a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Children of the Great Depression, sees other parallels with current times. At the least, the attacks "changed a generation's sense of vulnerability and its need to be engaged in the world."

As with Pearl Harbor, the reaction to Sept. 11 "placed a lot of emphasis on getting our priorities straight and what really matters in life," Elder says. "And whenever you feel who we are and what we stand for has been assaulted, you see government becoming more important. That's just always been the case."

Yet Elder and others see no shortage of skepticism of government on campus, too. The dichotomy may be reminiscent of the Vietnam era - when campuses exploded with strong reactions to the war.

"Maybe we are more cynical and more skeptical today," says Goucher senior Bevin Gwaizdowski, 21, of Philadelphia, "but we don't necessarily trust the government."

Some historians suspect that the best comparison for what's happening may be the Cold War. The conflict was not active, but diffused and prolonged. A generation was not necessarily called upon to make sacrifices, but a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil was feared.

"There is a war climate," says Elaine Tyler May, author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. "But it's peculiar that the call is not to sacrifice, save, conserve or give up, but to go to your local mall and spend or fly to Florida and enjoy Disney World."

Still, the mood in high schools and on college campuses seems too unsettled to draw many conclusions about how young people are adapting. Some students say they are sadder but wiser - not fearful so much as cautious.

"Maybe now we can prevent something like this from happening again," says Annece Flood, 20, a Goucher junior from Greenbelt. "We're more aware of the world. That actually makes me more optimistic."

May, an American studies professor at the University of Minnesota, suspects that if there is a transformational moment for this generation, it won't be Sept. 11 so much as what comes next. Perhaps there will be a prolonged war in Iraq or elsewhere, an oil shortage that cripples the economy or terrorist attacks on the scale of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When events have an immediate, personal impact - affecting job prospects, home life, the economy - its imprint will be far greater, she says.

"In that case, we are all affected, but young people who are coming of age today are likely to be affected the most dramatically," she says.

If those changes are anything like what has happened during past crises, America's youths may grow up to be more anxious and less likely to embrace change or to be optimistic about the future. But they might also adopt a more worldly view, put more value on family and community, and be more skeptical of conventional wisdom.

"We experienced a sense of common cause in a way that America hasn't had for decades," says Porter, who volunteered to help freshmen move into their dorms this year. "It would be nice if that part of it lasted for a while."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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