Protest has been a topic for a long time around my house.
Like a lot of people, I participated in the Women’s March in January 2017. Around that time, I had a discussion with a student who told me, “I just don’t see the point. I mean why would you?”
Her view was that even if you were unhappy about things, you just had to live with them. My response: “The question isn’t why would you—it’s why wouldn’t you?”
Yes, you may have to live with something you don’t like, but at the very least you can use your voice and body to register your dissent.
I confide, though, that the attitude worried me. My 14-year-old son has grappled too with the value of protest. The Charlottesville protests that left one dead and Antifa’s violence in the Berkeley riots, which caused so much damage, rattled and confused him. And, besides, he was uncertain that any protest would make a difference. Again, why would you protest? I told him what I told the student: Why wouldn’t you?
But not all adults think this way. A friend who has been taking her son on college tours told me that protests have been among the hot topics with parents of collegebound kids for some time. She’s had many parents tell her flat-out that they don’t want their kids going to the “type of schools where all those protests happen.”
It seems, however, that the type of schools where all those protests happen are now almost every school.
Last week, we watched as tens of thousands of school kids walked out as a sign of solidarity with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and to protest gun violence. The fact that this is happening is both astounding and not.
At the same time that I started hearing so much grappling over the value of protest, I also started to hear small conversations from educators around the country that told me something new was afoot.
One high school teacher in Texas said more than a year ago that the thing that gave him hope was his students. This teacher could see in them a new spark and an awareness. In essence, he could see young voices growing much stronger. In my son’s classroom, students were not practicing being quiet and living with what they didn’t like. His English teacher had them practicing their civil debate skills.
This event brought together leaders from schools, universities, government agencies, nonprofits and advocacy organizations, including some student-run groups. As a writer who likes to cover education, I was also lucky enough to get an invite. The stated goal was to discuss ideas and best practices around creating educational experiences that are safe, inclusive and engaging. But what I took away from it—what I was wowed by—was the percolating idea that student voice was crucial and that educators needed to support students in speaking up.
At the end of the conference, participants were invited to publicly post a takeaway or something they plan to do after the conference. Many educators said they would support and encourage students speaking up for themselves.
Now, of course, Parkland happened. And if you’re like me, you’re in complete awe of the student action. I want to take a moment, though, to say I’m equally in awe of their educators and parents. Thank goodness they aren’t saying, “Why? What’s the point?”
Thank goodness these aren’t adults who try to discourage their kids from protest, telling them they don’t want them to go to schools where protests happen.
My own eighth-grader continues to parse his views on any number of things: politics, gun laws, equal rights, the value of protest.
Late in the day on March 14 we received an email from his principal that included this news, “Today a group of our middle school students joined other students across the nation in the movement to step out of the classroom from 10:00-10:17 to honor the victims of the Parkland school shooting and to raise awareness about school shootings.”
We were eager to find out if he participated. Not everyone did.
“Yes,” he told us. “But I wish we could have had the protest during class time instead of recess.” Like I said, he’s 14. But, nonetheless, the “Why wouldn’t you?” won out—even during recess.
Yesterday a friend sent me an urgent text. She said she couldn’t attend March for Our Lives in D.C. on March 24, but she wanted to sponsor me. She was putting a check in the mail to cover my airfare. I started to think of excuses why I couldn’t go: I have two kids! I have loads of work! I live on the West Coast and I don’t know D.C. well! It will still be expensive! Why would I go? Then I heard my own words coming back at me.
“The question isn’t why would you—it’s why wouldn’t you?”
I bought my ticket.