SOL Day 14

When I was in high school, I was annoyingly political.  I interned at our local Republican state senator’s office for a few years and loved being a part of the state political process.  I attended a JSA summer camp at Princeton and debated political issues all day with some of the smartest kids I’d ever met.  I also wrote way too many persuasive essays demanding that the voting age be lowered to 16.  My poor history and English teachers must have rolled their eyes every time I handed in another research paper or essay about lowering the voting age.

My interest in politics was selfish, though.  I enjoyed being involved, especially at the state level, and I made some great friends.  I couldn’t wait to vote and registered as soon as I was allowed to do so.  But today I witnessed teens engaging in democracy for much bigger and better reasons, and I couldn’t be prouder.

Many students at HTHS exercised their right to protest and walked out of school for 17 minutes beginning at 10am.  Those who did not wish to participate remained in the building and classes continued as scheduled.  The students who came to my class read the newspaper as usual and responded by writing a letter to the editor in response to an op-ed written by 3 NJ high school students.  We often read and respond to op-eds, but today the students learned about the requirements for letters and how to submit them.  Instead of analyzing the rhetoric, the students focused on crafting a response about their thoughts on the walkout and/or gun violence.  We talked about the CDC ban on gun research and about the importance of using our voices no matter what side of an issue we fall on.

I was able to get outside for a few minutes thanks to a generous coworker who watched my class while they worked on their responses.  The walkout was organized and planned by students, with little involvement from the school.  Student leaders met with the administration early one and informed them about the plan.  They reached out to the underclassmen via social media and worked with their classmates, the upperclassmen, very closely.  Some of the faculty helped with logistics (safety, attendance, etc), but nothing else.  For 17 minutes today, the adults stayed in the background and watched the students.  I was in awe of what they accomplished.

Over the course of the 17 minutes, all of the students honored and remembered the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a student read a poem she wrote in response to the shooting, and a few students spoke about the importance of getting involved with the issues in order to create meaningful longterm change.  There were some tears and hugs as they re-entered the building and went back to class.

I’ve never been more proud of my students than I was today.  Those who walked out and those who stayed inside all thought long and hard about their decisions.  They engaged with an issue that affects their lives and schools and decided how to respond.  Tonight many of my freshmen have written blog posts about the choice they made and why they made it.  They are discussing the issue in comments and supporting each other while thinking critically about lockdown drills, evacuation plans, and everything else that’s become routine during their years in school.

There’s been some pushback on social media when it comes to the walkout.  A lot of people think students should “walk up, not walk out”; they want kids and teens to be nicer to each other rather than participate in events like the walkout.  Honestly, this offends me.  First of all, these people assume that teachers don’t already spend a great deal of time focused on teaching students empathy and kindness.  These aren’t in our curriculum, but we cover it anyway, all day every day.  Honestly, our schools need to do more as institutions to focus on social-emotional learning.  But walking out today doesn’t mean these kids aren’t also focused on reaching out to other.

But can we please be rational about this?  The (mostly male) perpetrators of mass shootings have almost all been severely mentally ill.  It’s not a kid’s responsibility to deal with a classmate’s mental illness.  We teach students that they should always “choose kind”, but we can’t teach them to be counselors and psychiatrists.  If schools, hospitals, and law enforcement officers can’t do anything to recognize and stop school shooters, why do we think kids and teens should be able to do it? Why is their responsibility to take charge?

The students at my school who did walk out of class today knew exactly why they were standing in the freezing cold for 17 minutes today.  Their motives weren’t selfish- they want to protect their friends, family, and classmates.  They are taking charge of their lives and they will force change.  Some of the students who walked out today will be able to vote this year.  Almost all of them will be able to vote in 2020.  Adults have failed them in so many ways; they are taking the lead now.  The least we can do is sit back and allow them to exercise their rights.  Encourage them to read about the issues, engage in debate, and, of course, to be kind to one another.  But don’t tell them they are too young, too dumb, or too immature to force change or lead by example.

Whether they walked out today or not, every kid who took the time to make that decision was actively participating in democracy.  Isn’t that what we prepare them for in public school?