Sometimes just the act of standing up against injustice starts to make things right. Speaking the truth to power can be redemptive. That’s how it felt last week as I watched my own family and my students (who I love like family) take part in the National School Walkout Day. If you are middle-aged like me and have participated in too many protests and political activities to count, it’s easy to start to see activism as work, a job that needs to be done but takes its toll– particularly in these grim times. You get tired, weary of the endless fight.
Then, once in a while, something happens that gives you renewed life, helps you see the world again with fresh eyes.
That’s what watching my kid get ready for the Roosevelt Middle School Walkout did for me. One night as he was talking about the planning with me, I asked him why he believed it was important for him to do this.
If you had to write your own speech, I asked him, what would you say? Without missing a beat, he grabbed a piece of paper and wrote this: “I walked out to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters across the country who were the victims of this latest mass shooting. I also did it to try and prevent as much future violence as possible. I don’t believe that people’s rights to have dangerous guns are more important than students’ rights to live.”
Beautiful, I thought.
Then on the day of the walkout, as my son was taking part in the action at Roosevelt, I joined the students at City College where the Associated Students had asked the teachers to support their action. We did, but the students planned and ran the whole thing.
It was a wonder to behold.
As the AS President, Ignacio Hernandez, punctuated the 17 moments of silence with the names and stories of the students and teachers who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the several hundred college and nearby high school students listened in rapt silence. After that, a line of young people came to the mic and spoke passionately and eloquently about the need to stop the killing.
One of my students, Mia Zedukes, explained why she took part in the action:
As a student and mindful human being, I took part in the Walkout because I truly believe that showing solidarity, taking action, and being present can make a difference in our unbalanced nation. The words I spoke today were intended to speak to people’s minds and hearts and unite us as ONE. Our schools should not become overly rigid and militarized and fearful. We need room for compassion and love and freedom.
Later, my wife, Kelly Mayhew, represented the faculty and offered this:
I teach English here at City College and am a member of AFT local 1931, which is doing a lot across the country right now to advocate for better gun laws. I am also the mother of a 14-year-old eighth grader at Roosevelt Middle School who, like you, is walking out of his class right now. It makes me cry to think that you all and he must protest gun violence in order to protect yourselves and your school. You all should be safe at your school. It’s your right. But by “safe” I don’t mean that I should have a gun to protect you, or that City College should employ security forces to keep shooters off campus, or that there should be armed guards everywhere. Like the coach at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, I would throw myself between a shooter and my students without thinking about it. But I shouldn’t have to. Truly being “safe” means going to the root of the problem: looking at the U.S.’s obsession with guns and violence, pushing back against the idea that violence and only violence solves our problems, and how violence has come to be one of the defining features of masculinity in our culture. My heart hurts for all the trauma these ideas have caused us. My heart hurts for YOU—you should have a future that’s free of these ideas and you should be able to go to school without having to deal with them. So I look to you, our students, our young people and your brave and committed stands to help make this world better. You will be the ones to make things change, to pressure politicians shackled by the noxious chains of the NRA, to push for sane gun control laws. I have faith in you. You all deserve so much better than this.
After Kelly was finished, the students kept speaking for a good while, one young person inspiring the next to come up and raise their voice as well. They talked about loving each other, seeing the world with compassion, and taking power by registering and voting and making the world their own. I couldn’t help getting a little choked-up as I watched.
Maybe, just maybe, the future was being born right before my tired eyes.