By DYLAN SKINNER
It’s been one month since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In that short period of time, we’ve seen a group student activists not only call out this country’s utter failure to protect them from violence but also inspire thousands of other students nationwide to follow their lead.
Those students marched this past weekend to fight for something so elementary it hurts my soul: the right to attend school without ending up in pools of their own blood.
They have shown strength and courage in the face of tragedy and horror while their congressional “representatives” have cowered behind cash that rains down from the NRA. They remain steadfast even as gun zealots and political pundits have unleashed a slough of baseless accusations as well as petty insults that these children are actors, Nazis, or mindless tools of the left.
While this brave mobilization inspires me, one narrative that has emerged from it is disconcerting – the idea coming from adults that “these kids are the ones who are going to save us all.”
Maybe it comes from the powerlessness many of us older folks have accumulated in our hearts since Donald Trump assumed the presidency 428 days ago. There’s been no gradual erosion of our civic fabric over this past year and two months – rather, we have watched much of the progress made over the last eight years explode.
We’ve seen transgender individuals banned from serving in the military. We’ve seen (three and counting) attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. We’ve seen walls both symbolic and concrete erected to keep brown and black people out of the country. The president, a cruel sexual predator, has spent nearly a quarter of his presidency playing golf at taxpayer expense.
We have been worn down by the constant stress that comes from living on the edge. And older people like me carry a lot of baggage in these difficult political times. We feel guilt and confusion thinking about how these challenges came to be under our watch.
Many of us are paralyzed by our responsibilities — jobs, families, rent, student loans — and worry that engaging will somehow threaten our livelihoods.
Yet somehow, we adults have to find a way to not simply gaze in admiration as these leaders of the future galvanize our country. We’re still in the present. There is room right now to both recognize these incredible young people for their efforts, and to remember that we still have agency to support their work that we shouldn’t sacrifice.
One of the main tools available to us is the vote. Some of the students fighting for their right to live won’t be able to vote for years. At my place of employment several middle school students participated in our Parkland remembrance activities, some of them as young as 12.
These individuals weren’t able to vote in the last election and they won’t be able to in the next one either. But we will. We will vote candidates into office with concrete solutions that will protect our youth. We will demand that anyone taking public office not accept a dime from the gun lobby. And we will speak for these children who simply want to make it to their 18th birthdays.
If we allow ourselves to be utterly silenced by the aforementioned debilitating caution, we let our children down in subtle yet insidious ways. We must not remain quiet about every single issue that could be even remotely construed as political or controversial — especially issues that shouldn’t be controversial at all, like preventing students from being killed at school.
Finally, adults must be prepared to engage with youth in our community and genuinely listen to what they have to say.
Gun violence in the United States is a epidemic made up of easy access to weapons, entrenched patriarchy, cultural norms of solving problems with violence, and the corporate financial support of a bastardized version of the Second Amendment. These are big issues, and it’s hard to know where to begin trying to solve them.
So start with the students. Even if you don’t work at a school, chances are you encounter young people in at least one aspect of your life. Ask a kid — any kid, even in college — how they’re feeling. Are they afraid? Confused? Angry? Determined?
We know that shootings don’t happen in schools alone. Gunfire has erupted at concerts, in churches, and within what is supposed to be the safety of our own homes. Take the fear and sadness you’ve felt at hearing about these events and now picture yourself with those same feelings, but in a brain and body that are rapidly changing.
Imagine having to do math homework while wondering if your school is next. Think about what it’s like to wait until today’s lockdown drill is over to talk to the boy you like.
I happened to be in a classroom filled with sixth graders when my own institution experienced a real lockdown a few months back. The students did their best to remain calm, whispering amongst each other like we all do in the midst of shared, strange experiences.
But then someone pulled on the door of our science lab. That panic-inducing noise was later revealed to be an administrator checking if all the rooms were locked, but I’ll never forget the widened eyes and eighteen sharp intakes of breath surrounding me.
If I as an adult am quiet in public forums and don’t describe the terror I saw first-hand in those children, how can I claim to truly be an educator?
So yes, these kids are incredible. They speak with purpose and power. They are using the technological tools of their generation to demand change. They are trying to tear down a diseased system that does not care whether they live or die, and build it back up from scratch.
We, their elders, must find our inner masons and build right alongside them.