In 1986 I was thrilled to land a teaching post at Abington Friends’ School in Pennsylvania, home to the oldest Quaker meeting house in America. Quakers have a long tradition of civil disobedience, refusing to pay taxes as war resisters, offering sanctuary to immigrants, facing arrest as they work for social justice. They are a reflective people.
Sometime during that first week on the job, as my students worked quietly at their desks, a revelation came to me in the form of a question. It was terrifying and wonderful. “I wonder if they are aware that if they were all to walk out of the room, en masse, there would be nothing I could do to stop them?” It dawned on me suddenly and very clearly: they held a power of which they might be unaware. As a high school student in the radical 1970’s, the thought of such personal/collective power had certainly never crossed my mind. Though I respected many of my own teachers, I’d suffered with my classmates through more than our share of crass, indifferent, stupid, under-qualified, incurious, bored, boring and lecherous instructors. Not once did it occur to me that we could have stood up and voted with our feet.
There were no school shootings to speak of in those days. Not coincidentally, there were no Junior ROTC programs. No military recruiters on high school or college campuses. No armed school resource officers. No militarized police in city streets. No gestapo-like check-points in airports. No battalions of armed guards at the Mexico/U.S. border whose only proven function is to make all hispanic high school students in the U.S. feel targeted as “the other.” No specially male-youth targeted video-games developed by the Pentagon to make the spilling of blood more “real” and yet entirely unreal. We were not yet desensitized to violence. Everyone cried when JFK was killed. And again for Dr. King. And again for Bobby.
In 1991, I was teaching honors and A.P. French at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr. One day, a handful of my best and brightest pupils from the previous year rushed into my classroom as I was dismissing my own students for lunch. Talking over each other, laughing gleefully, one blurted out, “We just did something SO bad!” Their bright smiles and laughing eyes told me otherwise; it wasn’t a true confession they wanted to spill. “We went on strike today in Mme. Lowrey’s class!” said Alix. “We decided we couldn’t put up any longer with her treating us with so much disrespect. Her outrageous demands!” “And her arrogance,” her friend Alex added, “like she knows it all!” She never listens to us when we try to explain why we hate her class.
So, Krissy helped us get organized…” Krissy?! I quickly turned my gaze to face the instigator of this brave boycott: a Girl Scout; a faculty member’s child; a girl of modest means in a sea of wealthy students, and by far the most respectful, quiet girl I’d ever taught. Her eyes met mine and her smile told me that she was hugely proud and more than a little surprised at her newfound inner power as leader of the Resistance! ) “…and so we agreed we’d all show up early and just lie on the floor of Lowrey’s classroom with the lights off. When she walked in to start class, we all just played dead! She didn’t know what to do. She yelled at us, but we didn’t move. We didn’t even open our eyes. It was great!” Brilliant.
But they were only playing dead. No one had shot them dead in their classroom. They would open their eyes again. They would rise from the floor and be able to demand that their teacher listen, really listen, to their stated needs, all entirely reasonable.
Though I retired from high school teaching in 2012, I have been thinking all day today, February 15, 2018, about what I would have wanted to say to my high school students this morning, the day after the Valentines’ Day Massacre in Florida.
February 14th, I would want to tell them, doesn’t have to blur along with all the other dates where classrooms became battlefields, bleeding into one bloody red smear where school names and victims faces can no longer be recalled. Not if you take action. Not if you make this your line in the sand. Demand there be no more child executions in classrooms and on playgrounds or in clubs or movie theaters. You don’t have to endure this obscene reality any longer. Remember Alix and Alex and Kristi and the Quakers and the war resisters.
You can reflect. You can resist. You can refuse.
With everything the so-called “grown-ups” have done to threaten your collective future on planet Earth, the very least we owe you is a good education. But to learn anything, you need to feel safe in your classrooms. No one can be expected to concentrate while waiting for the sound of gunfire to erupt at any moment, anticipating the screams of classmates. Worried that little brothers or sisters might be targets tomorrow. Reflect. Resist. Refuse!
You have unfortunately been born into a country where the sale of guns and drugs turn enormous profits for the financial portfolios of the adults in power. Instead of banning guns to end this preventable American public health epidemic ~ this massacre of the innocents ~ the so-called adults who run this country will just keep prescribing more anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication … for you! Big Pharma and the NRA know. Wall Street knows. The Dow Jones gets high on pharmaceuticals, nuclear bombs and assault weapons. Reflect on the absolute evil of such market-driven madness. Reflect on why adults can easily picture the annihilation of Earth but not the end of capitalism.
Resist their attempts to attribute mental instability to you when your reactions to the insane world they have created are perfectly sound and sane. On that day, when you walk out of your classrooms as part of a nation-wide high school boycott / strike, you will be walking out of their crooked reality. Refuse to be part of their collective madness!
The so-called grown-ups are already saying it is your responsibility to be watchful, your job to keep yourselves safe, your duty to be suspicious of each other. How dare they?! Refuse to listen to such disgraceful nonsense. It is the the sacred duty and legal responsibility of adults to keep children safe. Don’t let them shift the burden of their responsibility to you. Reflect. Resist. Refuse.
You deserve to be healthy. You deserve to be educated. You deserve to be safe. You are right to feel utterly betrayed. All children in this country are victims today, not only of direct and vicarious trauma from repeated school massacres, but victims of Institutional Betrayal Trauma too. The adults around you have collectively failed you. We are guilty of criminal neglect and should be held accountable for our failure to protect you and to provide for you and your brothers and sisters.
In so many ways. You and I are victim of the personal addictions of our national leaders. You’ve seen this and you know it to be true. They can’t help themselves. They are addicted to money, addicted to power, addicted to careers and campaign contributions, addicted to hearing themselves talk in circles in front of microphones. And like all addicts, they suffer from twisted thinking. I ache knowing and saying that this is true, but I know that none of it is news to you. High School students have incredibly reliable built-in bullshit detectors. Trust yourselves! You see clearly.
I taught high school for nearly 30 years because I love you and believe in you. As a collective being, you see truer, feel more deeply, have higher energy and greater hopes than any other group of humans. You have taught my generation how to understand our computers and smart boards, how to set up a Facebook Page, how to load our Kindle. You will figure out how to turn the world right side up again. Adults will follow your example.
“How come we’re always learning at school about revolutionaries who stand up to oppressive systems but if we’re tardy to class we’re in trouble?” ~ Cameron, WLHS years ago. (I laughed. He’d nailed it!)
- In France, students sometimes stage walk-outs alongside their teachers and administrators to protest overcrowding in classrooms. They know how to mobilize!
- In the 1960’s it was the peaceful Montgomery Bus Boycott that kicked the civil rights movement into high gear.
- It was young people walking out of classes, occupying administrative offices on college and high school campuses that helped bring an end to the Vietnam war.
- In Québec in the late 1960’s it was French speaking poets and singers who started “La Révolution Tranquille.” The peaceful revolution overthrew the entrenched power of the minority Anglophone business elite (and their partners in the Roman Catholic Church) — and in no time brought sweeping, lasting and positive change in education, social programs, jobs, and women’s rights.
- And don’t forget those great teachers of non-violent revolution: Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez; they’ll be marching out the door along with you, in Spirit.
Epilogue ~ February 20th. You ARE amazing. You ARE inspiring. You’ve got this!