With demands for gun-control sending kids out of class across America, I took the opportunity to check in at my alma mater.
Teen activists | Photo by author
Despite spending my teen years in a pit of depression and despair, I have largely fond memories of them. I look back now on adolescence as a rare stretch in life when I could focus on what I was most passionate about, like taking art classes and seminars on postmodernist theory, free of the responsibilities and cynicism that come with adulthood. Of course, my alma mater, Bard High School Early College (BHSEC), isn't your average high school. A specialized public school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, it's a partnership between the NYC Board of Education and Bard that allows students to complete four years of high school in two, and then take two years of college courses before the real thing.
But when I returned to my high school Wednesday, it wasn't to reminisce about or indulge again in the liberal arts. Nor was I trying to make cool teen friends in a futile effort to hold onto my waning youth as part of some 21 Jump Street-style sting operation. Instead, I wanted to tag along with current students engaged in the nationally-coordinated school walkout over gun violence in America—and maybe get some sense for just how radicalized young people with no connection to Parkland were by the mass shooting there last month.
According to Women’s March Empower, the group that helped organize the walkouts at schools across America, the action amounted to a collective demand that Congress “enact an immediate resolution declaring gun violence a public health crisis, and dedicating federal funding to research solutions and implement violence intervention programs." The walkouts were also at least ostensibly geared toward more controversial—and politically volatile—measures like a ban on assault weapons, a requirement for background checks for all gun sales, and some kind of gun violence restraining-order law.
At BHSEC, the notoriously precocious student body—true to form—didn't even wait for the official walkout start-time of 10 AM to get started. A few minutes before the hour, dozens and dozens of teenagers poured out of the school doors, some holding signs with messages like "Our Voices Will Not Be Silenced Stop the Gun Violence" and "We Refuse to Be Another Statistic," gathering on the astro-turf field across the street. New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman—whose daughter was in my own graduating class—was in attendance, along with an entourage of staffers and security, though the protesting students didn't take much notice of the powerful politician.
As we made our way onto the field, I overheard one student sporting a wide smile that revealed her braces tell a friend, “I’m just so happy there are so many people here."
Once the kids had finished assembling, a student organizer stood on a chair and explained to the crowd that, at the top of each minute, a group of them would take turns saying the name and age of one Parkland victim. The crowd was asked to repeat each name back, along with the word "enough."
As an ex-teen who attended this very school, I'm confident it remains a rarity to have a crowd of over 100 students stay totally silent. Yet, for the next 17 minutes, in between the slow and rhythmic call and response naming the victims, that's exactly what happened.
Teenagers make effective and well-organized protesters—maybe it's because they were still technically at school and there were teachers everywhere, but the walkout eluded the chaos typical of a political rally. And as Parkland survivors like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez showed us over the past month, high-school students can speak about gun violence with a combination of biting honesty and optimism that eludes many adults.
"It’s a big issue that the government doesn’t feel it needs to protect the people who are the future, and... if no one else is going to do something about it, it’s my place to," Sophia, a 16-year-old BHSEC student, told me of why she took part in the walkout Wednesday.
Gus, a 14-year-old freshman, explained that the "real protest" will happen on March 24, when the Parkland's survivors "March for Our Lives" rally is scheduled to take place in Washington, DC, and other cities. But he walked out Wednesday "to commemorate those who lost their lives."
Declan, 15 and a member of BHSEC's student government, said, "I helped organize the event, which was surprisingly easy, in large part due to the fact that so many students at this school are in favor of preventing gun violence and people’s ability to buy assault rifles, which they don’t need when they’re hunting for deer."
Although New York has much stricter gun control laws than many other parts of the country, 16-year-old Sophia insisted she was not totally unfamiliar with the annals of gun culture. "A good portion of my family lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, and I have photos in my phone of the guns at Walmart that are painted according to gender," she said, explaining that traveling to Texas allowed her to see her own "privilege."
"I’m in a relatively secure and safe place, so it’s my job to say something for students in Florida and Texas and Georgia and North Carolina," she told me.
That most of the work needs to be done nationally, rather in New York City or Albany, didn't exactly rob the kids of their urgency. "The fact that [New York] has much stricter [gun control legislation] helps us get a better grasp on how the system could be better," said Heaven, an 18-year-old senior.
For the most part, these city kids didn't necessarily seem newly radicalized by the Parkland shooting so much as freshly emboldened to insist that of course America needs stricter gun legislation—even if their parents' generation hasn't figured that out yet.
Felix, a 16-year-old junior, told me he thought there needed to be some legislation in place specifically to put a check on the NRA's power over American politics. "How are you going to let someone [reign] who stands for violence and stands for murdering?" he asked. "Because that’s all a weapon is. The only purpose a gun has is to murder. You can’t just let a group whose only intention is to murder control so much in our life."
A professional politician like Marco Rubio, or even Bernie Sanders, might have used more careful language. But Felix and his peers had no patience for the vagaries of the national gun-control debates that have floundered in recent years. The fact that the adults who have traditionally run America aren't too keen on the younger generation's vision of a less violent culture hasn't fazed Parkland activists. It didn't seem to be a stumbling block for teens in Manhattan, either.
As Declan put it, "Regardless of whether your state has gun laws, I think everyone with a soul and with morals in general are able to see the fact that this is completely horrible."
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