Tuesday, March 13, 2018

To Each Generation of Students Comes the Need to Walkout

I’ve been asking my children about the National School Walkout planned for Wednesday, and they don’t seem excited about it — my questions or this demonstration. 

There’s much debate among their peers about what the walkout aims to achieve, they said, and there’s much more resignation that, regardless, it will achieve nothing. 

Lucky for them, I’ve got experience as a successful high school protester.

The National School Walkout, spearheaded by the youth branch of the post-Trump inauguration Women’s March organization, is scheduled to take place at schools across the nation March 14 at 10 a.m., local time. It is to last 17 minutes — one minute for each person killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., exactly one month earlier.

According to the organizer’s website, the walkout’s purpose is to put the heat on federal legislators. “We are not safe at school. We are not safe in our cities and towns. Congress must take meaningful action to keep us safe and pass federal gun reform legislation that address the public health crisis of gun violence,” the website states. “We want Congress to pay attention and take note: many of us will vote this November and many others will join in 2020.”

That last sentence alone would have made my high school classmates spit out their Sour Patch Kids so they could chomp at the bit.

My high school years fell during the 1980s when nostalgia peaked for the all-things late ’60s in music, fashion and social protest. We had Band Aid, Live Aid and Farm Aid. Rallies against nuclear weapon proliferation and Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. A first Top 10 album from the Grateful Dead. Heady times, indeed.

My classmates and I made some noble efforts. We raised money for starving Africans. Distributed food and clothes to the homeless in the New York’s Bowery, then still in its pre-gentrification prime grime. But none of those good deeds had the immediate impact of the Great Picnic Protest of ’85.

Our school had long held an annual freshman-senior weekend picnic to bond the two classes and put the younger ones at ease in their new environment. In autumn 1985, though, the school canceled it. Our administrators wouldn’t confirm it had to do with underage drinking in years past but many of us seniors with older siblings or memories of our own freshman-senior picnic could have easily exclaimed, “The jigger is up!”

Contraband Budweiser wasn’t our beef because, frankly, we all knew there would always be a kegger on a secluded green of the public golf course for that. It was the principle.

To express displeasure, our senior class protested. Most of our 158 students, en masse during the middle of the school morning, walked out of the front doors. Without permission. We milled about the pavement or sat on the curbs. We had no chant or clever signs, but for fans of youthful idealism and unity, it was a glorious moment.

Ten 60-second moments later, the principal and vice principal “encouraged” us to return to class. Immediately.

I don’t know how the local newspaper heard about our solidarity, but that afternoon a reporter interviewed students in the parking lot and me, editor of the student newspaper, via the pay phone outside the gymnasium. Within hours, and before the reporter’s deadline, the school reinstated the picnic. 

But on a weekday. Right after school. To simplify logistics, I’m sure. (Oh — that’s just dust making my left eye flutter.)

The Great Picnic Protest of ’85 had nowhere near the magnitude or the importance or the urgency of this National School Walkout against gun violence in our country. But at the time, to me and my classmates — mostly aged 17 and on the verge of having a say at the ballot box on issues of real magnitude, importance and urgency — it meant something. It meant we had a voice and others not only might hear it but also they might listen to it. 

 That’s a lesson I hope every student who participates March 14 gets a chance to learn instead of the one that life is no picnic.

A version of this was first ignored by readers of the Stamford Advocate.

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