On Sept. 11, 2001, my husband called our home outside Washington, D.C., from where he was working at the Treasury Department. Turn the TV on, Bob said, and tell me why I’m seeing people running out of the White House next door. I turned it on just in time to see the second tower of the World Trade Center fall and to hear that another jet was supposedly heading for the White House. Get out, I said, after sobbing through some jumbled explanations. Don’t take the Metro!

Bob fled the nation’s capital on foot that Tuesday morning with thousands of other workers. I drove to my job that evening as a news copy editor for USA TODAY, in a 31-story tower with our newspaper name in huge capital letters on top for any terrorist on an airplane to see. Our office back then was just a couple of miles from the Pentagon that now was also burning from a hijacked jet attack. 

Eighteen days later, I had a son in an emergency cesarean section, after he survived an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. 

Kien-Tam Elston in an ankle-biter football league in Northern Virginia in 2009. History has its eyes on the Class of 2020

Last month, we moved this child into his freshman dorm at Virginia Tech. But who knows how much longer he’ll stay there as other colleges are shutting down because returning students are spreading coronavirus infections. The terrorist attacks on America 19 years ago killed several thousand people in one morning. Since the first reported case of COVID-19 in Washington state nine months ago, the USA has documented 6.4 million cases and nearly 192,000 deaths.

As we helped our son assemble shelves in the dorm room he’s sharing with a friend from high school, I couldn’t help but wonder what else is coming for this generation born into the unending war on terrorism and beginning college in a pandemic that has killed about 910,000 earthlings. What inauspicious bookends!

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How has this son responded to this virus? 

‘The biggest stage of them all’

In March, when America began shutting down, he was another high school senior struggling with on-the-fly virtual classes and anxious about what’s going to happen to college. By then, he had introduced us to his new girlfriend, a redhead who speaks Spanish because she’s half Paraguayan. Her family only several years ago moved back to America from Africa, where her father was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, so her mother can be treated for advanced cancer.

Because his girlfriend’s mother is extremely vulnerable — and because our household includes grandparents in their late 70s — we watched this teenager suddenly taking it upon himself to research and help lead our family on how to fight off COVID-19. Out of a young love in a time of historic public health crisis, he turned into a protective old fart lecturing us on masks and social distancing, disciplining our quarantine bubble, going grocery shopping so the grandparents no longer had to. 

After quarantines and juggling medical recommendations to move college kids back into the family bubble in Northern Virginia in June 2020: In the front row are grandparents Duc Le and Bob and Carol Anne Elston. Back row from left, Fiorella Chrystal, high school grad Kien-Tam, Thuan, son Thai-Son, daughter Thai-Binh, husband Bob, son Hanh-Thien and girlfriend Suzi Kawachi — both new college graduates.

We’re proud of the young adult our college freshman has become during the pandemic. But I worry about a bigger crisis for his generation.

Despite the relentless fatal attack from this coronavirus on an impatient, undisciplined, leaderless America — and despite how far away it seems until we beat the virus into retreating so we can get our lives back — vaccines and treatments one day soon will win. What’s more dangerous is how the United States of America is now the Divided States of America, with a presidential election in less than two months.

Through no fault of its own, the Class of 2020 was cursed with not only COVID-19 but also social and political diseases for which our nation’s leaders can’t or won’t find a vaccine or treatment. And now, as former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang told graduates this year, they are “walking across the biggest stage of them all.” How will our failures instruct this generation, as actor Tom Hanks put it in a virtual commencement address, “to form the new structures and define the new realities and make the new world, the world after all that we have been through”?

You’re supposed to hope that the next generation will be better off than yours, as yours was better off than your parents’, and so on. But how will our children build on what we bequeathed them to make a better life not only for themselves but also for the rest of us?

This son of ours born soon after 9/11 is named Kien-Tam, which means perseverance in Vietnamese. Persevere, Class of 2020, and show us what you’ve got.

Thuan Le Elston is a member of USA TODAY’s Editorial Board. Follow on her Twitter: @thuanelston

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus generation: My 9/11 baby has begun COVID-19 university

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