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The Daily Tar Heel

Letter: An open letter to people older than me

Like other students, staff and faculty at UNC, I am still grappling with how to process the heartbreaking events of this past week. The images of students jumping out of buildings, researchers in lab coats walking down South Road with their hands in the air and police officers with machine guns patrolling the Bell Tower seem surreal and beyond belief.

I am 32 years old, a graduate student in the Department of History and a teaching fellow for an American history class this semester. Although I am only 10 to 14 years older than most of my students, it is clear from listening to undergraduates that members of Generation Z have grown up with gun violence in a way that is almost impossible for older people to understand. 

I was 7 years old when the Columbine shooting sparked international outrage; women and men a decade younger than me have come of age with seemingly omnipresent reports of people with guns interrupting learning. The feelings of fear, uncertainty and powerlessness that must come with this are not something that any other generation of young Americans have ever had to face. We can't fully know what that is like and how the events of the past week on our campus compound that trauma.

Several years ago, I was working as a high school teacher when my school had a lockdown drill. I dutifully urged my students to shelter low to the ground, closed and covered the windows and door and crouched down myself. When I had assumed my own position, I immediately realized I had forgotten to lock the door and sprung up to do that. Following the drill, almost all of my ninth grade students noted my mistake. 

"If this was real," they said with profound gravity, "we would have gotten hurt."

I realized in that moment that no group of Americans has grown up with gun violence the way that Generation Z has. No group can possibly completely understand the solemness and anxiety that school violence produces for them. 

Older people, including myself, need to listen and learn from those who have grown up with these experiences. We have had the luxury of growing up in schools and colleges that were safer and more secure than the ones that we are leaving to the next generation. Humility, to the fact that gun violence has been a factor in our students' lives in a way that we struggle to understand, is essential for our community to heal.

– Ian Gutgold, PhD Candidate, UNC Department of History

@dthopinion |

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