In the past few weeks, we have watched with pride as many of our students have joined their peers across the country, led by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, in calling for measures to end gun violence particularly as it relates to mass shootings in schools. In engaging in this activism, the girls are fulfilling our hopes for where a Holton education leads them, to "make a difference in a complex and changing world."
You know that Holton students organized activities associated with the National Walkout on March 14. However, the Walkout turned out to be only one aspect of March 14 post-Parkland activities. Montgomery County Students for Gun Control, an organization founded by students at Montgomery Blair High School, called for area students to expand the walkout into something bigger. They organized a march from the White House, where they began with 17 minutes of silence for the 17 Stoneman Douglas dead, to the Capitol where they held a rally. When seniors approached us about participating, we told them we absolutely supported their going – this kind of activity represents exactly the kind of action we want them to feel empowered to take. However, we also told them that they would be missing school and it would be an unexcused absence.
Missing school during the day prohibits students from taking part in after-school activities such as sports practices or contests or rehearsals or performances. Because a track meet was scheduled for that afternoon and a lacrosse game for Thursday afternoon (a player who misses practice the day before a game faces consequences related to playing time), some students faced a dilemma. While one could legitimately argue that, if we really want to promote activism, we should have waived the rule and let the students go without repercussions. However, enforcing the rule accomplished two things. First, a Walkout suggests disobedience and if you are engaging in civil disobedience, you need to be disobedient about something, in this case the expectation that one attends school. Secondly, and more importantly, because there were consequences for their actions, and consequences that could affect other people such as their teammates, the students had to examine how important the issue truly felt to them. This examination along with some sacrifice deepened the experience of attending the march. I should note that some students made the often difficult decision to stay, putting their responsibility to their team first. This represents a decision equally commendable to choosing to go to the march.
As expected, the march proved a potent experience for the girls. In a typical observation, Kat S. '18 said, "The most meaningful thing was looking around and seeing so many teenagers surrounding me, supporting the same cause with so much passion. Knowing that there's a whole generation ready to create change completely fills me with pride and hope for the future." Julie V. '18 called it "the most inspiring event I have even taken part in," and found the large number of students "the most impressive part." For Ellie Y. '18, who had been feeling "somewhat hopeless," "The student rally definitely helped take away some of that helpless feeling, and just by being there with all the other teenagers wanting to take action, I already felt more empowered." Taking part in this kind of demonstration makes one feel part of something much bigger than oneself. It's a heady experience.
In addition to the sense of solidarity with their peers and being part of a generation with a purpose, these young people feel connected with and are drawing inspiration from 1960's civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. Representative John Lewis', whom they recognize as a living historical figure, appearance at the rally particularly inspired the girls. They felt honored by his presence and the ways he connected the civil rights protests of his era with their student activism, as Julie V. '18 observed, instilled "the confidence and reassurance we needed to keep fighting."
Nor was Lewis alone. Mr. Tupper, who graduated from college in 1969 and came to Holton in 1971, made a similar connection for his AP Government students. According to Charlotte K. '18, with some emotion, he likened their activism to his own generation's aspirations for changing the world. He played them "Blowing in the Wind" which felt to Charlotte as "his way of passing the torch." This connection between the 1960's activists, for whose "actions and persistence in their beliefs" she has "so much respect," makes her feel that her generation, like theirs, is making history.
The desire for a bipartisan solution stands out as one of the most noteworthy aspects of this student led movement. These young people believe that curbing gun violence is about humanity not politics. Ellie Y '18 noted that "At the rally, I was surrounded by both Republican and Democratic students, who recognized that gun control is not an issue of left or right, but of life or death (as many protest signs read)." Lexi B '18 explained that she repeated phrase "this shouldn't be a war" in the song she wrote for her 1960's Protest Literature class (and performed at Coffeehouse) to "address the political retaliation from both sides regarding the shooting." She goes on to say, "To me, it seems so obvious that it should be a bipartisan effort to help our nation as a whole." Student speakers at marches have expressed the same sentiment. As one of the March 14 student speakers declared, "We are not seeking a Republican solution or Democratic solution, we are seeking an American resolution."
These young people are fed up with adult arguing, with polarization that has led to political paralysis. They want differences put aside and change to happen. Believing in the power of the ballot box, they are relying on the democratic system to work. In a typical statement, Olivia H '18 offered, "I look forward to voting in the fall of 2018. I want to use my voting rights to make a change."
Writing about the March 24th March for Our Lives, David Brooks highlights this characteristic of these young people's activism:
At a time when trust in democracy is waning, everybody kept underlining their faith in our democratic system, that voting is the way to make change. There was no culture war nastiness, no hint of resentment. . . . There was no ill will toward anybody but the N.R.A.
He describes that march as a contrast to the current climate of extremism: ". . . the march I saw was not extreme. It was a responsible moral answer to right a very specific wrong, gun violence. It struck me as a very characteristic burst of American moral passion." He places these young people's activism firmly in a long tradition of embracing the "privilege of being American, to take our turn narrowing the gap between the American Creed, which binds us, and the American reality, which always disappoints us."
As our girls consider how they can stay involved in fighting gun violence, two seniors are exploring how Holton's curriculum could better inform this kind of activism. Inspired by Parkland students who have referenced applying lessons they learned in civics classes in their organizing, these students are devoting their senior project to developing recommendations on how we could teach more civics.
As they draw on history and civics they have learned in school, as they revere an older generation, as they vow to exercise their vote to bring about change, these young people are anything but revolutionaries. Appealing to our shared humanity, our students and their peers are demanding that we live up to the promise of our democracy.