When we walk into school, there are a few administrative promises students can expect to be fulfilled. Traffic will be prevented if we all walk down the right side of the hall; we have to run laps in gym class; cafeteria food will labeled healthy but remain virtually inedible; basic participation will ensure that we are prepared for “life’s challenges.” The first few have been proved excessively. The final one? Not so much. I know about biology, fitness, and more wars than I can count on all my fingers and toes. But when it comes to "the real world" — current events, and the general tuning-in required — students are not only underprepared, we’re often punished if we try to get involved.
Though students have been rallying for years, the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election are generally regarded as the catalyst that pushed our generation over the edge, opened the floodgates, and re-re-re-sparked a historic revolution. On November 9, I remember my classmates filing into our first classes with grim faces. We were exhausted from staying up until 4 a.m. to watch the final poll results roll across our screens. We were stressed and upset. We were totally unsure of what was to come, and many of us looked at our teachers for the next steps to take. Our hopes were dashed pretty quickly. Many classes began as normal, with almost no acknowledgment of the political change except a nod or a shrug or a wry joke. Throughout the day, this trend continued. My friends around the country were shocked.
My email inbox spiked with teens seeking advice. Our group chats buzzed: When there wasn’t outright silence from our administration, there was often dissuading and gaslighting. One teacher basically told our class outright that protests wouldn’t be effective. Another presented the five stages of grief and kindly told us to get over it. Despite the fact that a seeming majority of our teachers personally opposed 45’s policies, they became downright uncomfortable when we asked what we could do. Our stress was misplaced, and soon many kids who wanted to get involved were intentionally avoiding the issue; they simply kept their heads down and focused on the increasingly large workload of junior year — ironically, most of our lessons were focused on the American Dream and the movements that shaped it. If a headline was brought up, it was met with denial. “I can’t change that policy,” an activist friend told me in the hallway one day, “but I can make my college essay perfect.” When protests in our school were organized, all it took was a teacher’s raised eyebrow and a stern remark to make the most active and enthusiastic members terrified. Prospective young activists would sit back down and later come up to us, chagrined.
So yeah, lack of administrative support sucks. It doesn’t stop every student from speaking out, but it definitely has the power to dilute the crowd. That’s one of the many reasons the #Enough! March 14th National School Walkout was such a powerful call-to-arms: It was teen-led. After the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it was our fellow students who confronted Marco Rubio and Donald Trump (Cameron Kasky, 16, and Sarah Chadwick, 16), whose speeches went viral (Emma González, 18), who directly met legislators (Alfonso Calderon, 16, and Samuel Zeif, 18). These students sparked a national movement, and administrators around the country seemed to be showing their support. My own town hosted a meeting where teens had the opportunity to express their perspectives on local school safety, and the room was bursting with middle schoolers and high schoolers waiting to speak. We started to discuss gun policies in class. At first it felt like our voices were being heard. But soon we were drowned out. In the name of safety (a justified concern), our administrators were the main organizers for the walkout route. They made an announcement that turned our radical movement into an optional fire drill. Our teachers were in control, and we were expected to simply follow along.
So my friends and I sat in our alcove and ate our cafeteria burritos. We devised a plan, complete with a secret Facebook group and color coordination (intense stuff!). Instead of following the route our teachers laid out, we were going to create our own plan, to restore the protest’s initial intentions. We weren’t aiming to be divisive, and we're not bashing the administration: In fact, that would be counterproductive. We are surrounded by the power of teenagers. We know our worth, our power, our strength. Teenage activists do not need babysitters. We are change makers and do not need our hands held — we are expected to lead the world in a few years, and should be treated as such.
Pictures by Maya Foxman