Chesapeake Career Center Update: The Kids are Alright

In the previous issue of Connections, we interviewed a group of Dental Tech students from the Chesapeake Career Center. They were slated to be guest speakers at our breakfast in March, but COVID 19 got in the way. We thought we would check in with them again for this issue to get their perspective and see how they are doing.

These kids astound me, but it’s not why you think… It’s not because they are being reckless and telling me how they’re hanging out with their friends every night. It’s not because they’re saying they’re young and therefore not at risk (like so many assume of their age group.) And it’s not because they’re throwing temper tantrums about being inside. Nope, I’m not aghast or amazed about the Gen Z’ers and their disregard for my personal safety.  Actually, I’m wishing more people I knew were just like them.  The “kids,” (aka “young adults,” aka “a hope for the future,”) I’m referencing are talking to me via Google Meet during one of their scheduled class sessions for the Chesapeake Career and Technical Center. They are a group of dental assistant students that I worked with in-person just a few short months ago. And they were supposed to be the keynote speakers for our TWC Awareness breakfast in March. My how things change…

When I was in their classroom last, we were having a great discussion about their future plans and how on earth they were going to afford them. One of the things I liked most about this group of students was how candid they were with me from the start- even when it meant poor Kay Smith practically pulling her hair out in class because I inadvertently bombarded her with too much information about credit scores.  Or how Jaylen Clemons was willing to go the rounds over the probability of affording a luxury apartment in Las Vegas by himself because he did not want to have to get a roommate. They spoke truth and they appreciated that I tried to give it back to them. And in my multiple visits with this group of students, I found myself more and more confident that they had everything it took to be successful. I found myself not worried for them because I could already tell that they were thinking of the right questions to ask adults like myself, and we all know that’s the real secret to success. But that was months ago. That was in a pre-COVID-19 world. 

Now, I’m checking back with my kids. They didn’t get to shine at our breakfast because it was canceled. They didn’t get to take their portfolios out to get jobs because their portfolios are currently locked in the school. And forget the worries they had about credit scores—these kids are worried more about when they will ever get to leave their houses feeling safe again. 

Yes, they are taking advantage of not having school to sleep in. Isaiah Reid takes care of the dog with a walk around 9am, then goes back to bed until about 1pm.  Rachel Lamotta is more of an afternoon-riser, but she gets everything done that she needs during her night owl hours. Kay is also about a 1-2pm riser. So yes, if you’ve heard that these young people are sleeping in late, you have heard right. But remember, at their age, their bodies need the most sleep possible because of all the ways they’re changing. One local school district even recently looked at changing its start times because of the need for sleep and the teenage body. So, if you’re going to fault them for sleeping in, I guess that’s fair. But here’s what else I learned about their day-to-day living amidst this pandemic.  

Jaylen’s biggest stressors right now are his grades and when the SAT and ACT will figure out how they’re offering testing. But he gets up at 8am, plays some X box, does his school work, then hangs at home under threat of, “you go out, you’re not coming back in,” from his very protective (and responsible,) mother. Kay is reading a lot, also stressing about her chemistry homework, and admits to feeling a little socially distant in all this because she really only keeps in touch with the friends she would normally see in real life. Rachel is staying on top of her schoolwork from home as well, and she’s actually decided to delete all social media simply because she finds it’s weighing her down. And Adia Huard is keeping busy at work. As the only one of the group with a job, she busies herself at a tire store and does “a lot more disinfecting these days.” For the most part, the group isn’t being pressured to get jobs right now because their parents want them safe at home, and they prefer it that way as well. It’s not laziness, it’s observation.  Maybe because they have a background in dental work and therefore have a fundamental understanding of what “sanitary” looks like, but most of them express to me how aghast they are when they see what people are passing off as “precautions” and they don’t want to put themselves at risk in the midst of it all.  

I don’t know if I could say that this particular group of students should be considered representative of all their generation—that’s probably a bit of a stretch.  But I do know that after an hour online with them I was really moved.  When I spent time in their classes before I worried that their concerns over financial burdens were really valid, and I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty in the part that my generation and those before had played in creating such financial messes for them to navigate through. Now they’ve got something even bigger to contend with and they are counting on all of us to try to make it “all right” for them. 

These are complicated issues for everyone right now and there are no easy answers. But on the rare days when I glimpse at my own social media, what I see most is blame. A lot of blame is floating around and a lot of complaint. Blame and complaint without a lot of solutions, or empathy. And it’s funny because in our professional work courses that we deliver, two of things we try to emphasize to our students are that in a working environment you should never complain about a situation without first trying to see it from all sides and points of view, and then thinking of how something could be solved and offering solutions.  And if we expect that in a professional atmosphere, shouldn’t it be good enough for a personal one as well?  Most of the classes we teach at TWC fall under the category of “life-skills” and that title rings truer now than ever. These kids work hard to embrace the life skills we teach, and we have to walk our talk in real life too.  These youth don’t have a lot of agency right now in how they can influence their own lives—cars, money, jobs, homes—all of the trappings of adulthood are just a little bit out of reach for them, so they have to put their trust in us.   And we cannot fail them. 

And, if you read this whole article and you still are content to dismiss them as “reckless, lazy and sleeping all day” that’s fine; but just remember that they’re going to be fixing your teeth one day, and a dentist laden with debt and fear is not the dentist I would want rooting around in my mouth! 

—Harvest Bellante, Program Director