I have spent more than five decades in classrooms with teenagers. The enjoyment of most of that time has been serendipitous, never knowing what to expect, including under- and over-performances in the classroom and surprises on athletic fields. But what has always been consistent is their ability to focus and adopt a cause, especially when they’re helping people who experience misfortune. Teenagers are a generation who altruistically care for others.
The recent mass carnage of teenagers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School revealed the worst of American society but the best of America’s teenagers and public schools. Within hours of experiencing trauma only imaginable in their world of fiction, student leaders emerged, showing poise, determination, adeptness and a plan to stop the gun violence that challenges the leaders elected by their parents’ generation.
Lacking adult concerns of peer pressure, career implications and spouse accountability, these teenagers identified the problem, analyzed the process and formulated a plan. They applied the best strategies of critical analysis. They survived a well-organized adult attack of their credibility and motivation. Their teachers and the public school system prepared them to solve problems and develop action plans. Public schools throughout the country have similar leaders waiting to seize a cause, locally, nationally or globally.
They messaged better than either political party. “We are going to be the last mass shooting,” said school leader Emma Gonzalez who only hours before was celebrating Valentine’s Day with her high school classmates. “Just like Tinker v. Des Moines [Supreme Court ruling allowing high school students to wear black arm bands peacefully protesting the Vietnam War], we are going to change the law,” she added.
Emma was joined by other student leaders and massacre survivors whose names will likely appear on future state and national ballots: David Hogg, Alex Wind, Cameron Kasky and Jacqueline Coren.
“We can’t ignore the issues of gun control that this tragedy raises. I’m asking — no, demanding — we take action now … our politicians abandoned us by failing to keep guns out of schools. But this time, my classmates and I are going to hold them to account. This time we are going to pressure them to take action. This time we are going to force them to spend more energy protecting human lives than unborn fetuses,” wrote 17-year-old survivor Cameron Kasky for a CNN forum. “This is about the adults. We feel neglected, and at this point, you’re either with us or against us,” he added.
Not intimidated by political leaders or organizations, Kasky called for “a new normal where there’s a badge of shame on any politician who’s accepting money from the NRA.”
A recent New York Times article reported money the NRA donates and spends supporting Republicans, in addition to $31 million supporting President Trump’s election, includes: $7,740,521 John McClain (Ariz.); $6,986,620 Richard Burr (N.C.); $4,551,146 Roy Blunt (Mo.); $3,879,064 Cory Gardner (Co.); $3,303,355 Marco Rubio (Fla.); and $3,124,273 Joni Ernst (Iowa). Democrats receiving less NRA support include Stanford Bishop (Ga.); Joe Manchin (West Virginia); and Patrick Leahy (Vermont).
“This isn’t about the GOP. This isn’t about the Democrats,” Kasky said. “Any politician on either side who is taking money from the NRA is responsible for events like this. At the end of the day, the NRA is fostering and promoting this gun culture.”
Florida students first began protesting at the Tallahassee Capitol with chants of “Vote them out! Vote them out,” referencing Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio.
Clarifying that students were not protesting abolishing the Second Amendment, 17-year-old Douglas student Florence Yared spoke at Tallahassee, saying, “I’m not trying to take away your Second Amendment rights, nor am I trying to eliminate all guns. But we cannot protect our guns before we protect our children.” Student walkout protests continued in Washington, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Colorado and Illinois.
These confident, informed and social media-skilled teenagers are not intimidated. Kasky asked Rubio to refuse campaign contributions from the NRA to which Rubio skillfully refused a reply.
Speaking the language unique to her peers, Emma Gonzalez said, “Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. … They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS.”
Students’ protests have resulted in major Florida GOP donor Al Hoffman saying in the New York Times that he would not financially support candidates who would not back an assault weapons ban. Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would ban sales of assault weapons to anyone under 21 years old. The students pressured businesses to sever ties with the NRA, including Enterprise, Alamo, FedEx, Symantec (Norton Antivirus), MetLife, United and Delta. Students are similarly pressuring Amazon and Apple for affiliations with the NRA.
President Trump, after listening to students at the White House, said, “We are going to be very strong on background checks.”
You have a formidable opponent, Mr. President, who has been very well educated in America’s public schools to understand the political system. And in 2018, 11 million of them become voting age. Their action plan included a 17-minute (one minute for each Douglas student murdered) national school walkout on March 14. Another high school student, Lane Murdock, who lives 20 minutes from Sandy Hook, is planning another national walkout on April 20, the 19th anniversary of Columbine. They are protesting like their lives depend on their success. And they have the time, energy and support of their voting parents. As Emma Gonzalez said, “We are going to change the law.” And these kids have no fear of being re-elected.
Dr. Joe Giampalmi, an assistant professor at Rowan University’s Department of Writing Arts, has been teaching writing for 52 years. Author of five books and dozens of educational articles for national magazines, he has been writing this semi-monthly column since 1985 and has published more than 600 columns. Some past columns are available at DelcoNewsNetwork.com. Giampalmi regularly presents writing workshops for schools and businesses. Please address questions and comments to Giampalmi@Rowan.edu.