By Rachel Harris
April 19th was a day of highs and lows. During the day, school was abuzz. Everyone was talking about the next day’s school walkout (planned in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida) – whether they were going to do it, what they thought the punishments might be, if they were going to be in our local newspaper… My phone was on fire with texts from the organisers’ group chat. We planned to meet that day after school. We sat in the conference room, excitedly discussing who was bringing what, and writing the post for the Facebook event. I went home, giddy and anxious. My leg bounced under my kitchen table while I worked on my homework, my trademark nervous habit. I worried that no one would show up, or that everyone would get in trouble and blame me, or that it would rain really hard. My foot bounced faster. My phone dinged, bringing me out of my reverie.
Madison, one of the organisers, had texted the rest of us. Our assistant principal had called her in to talk. My foot stopped bouncing and my stomach twisted into a knot. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, reminding myself of why I organised the walkout in the first place: the shooting in Parkland had happened over a month ago, and no change had been made. We wanted to keep the momentum from the walkout a month earlier. The assistant principal could suspend us all if he wanted to; I didn’t care. This was something that I needed to do.
I got into my car and drove to school, where a few of the other organisers were waiting by the door. We walked upstairs, a united front. The five of us entered the assistant principal’s office in silence. The next two hours were painful to endure. We offered every possible solution, but were met with nothing but resistance. He threatened to call the police on us if we left the building, and to suspend anyone he saw doing a sit-in in the commons. My foot bounced incessantly and I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying. We all agreed that we couldn’t put people in a position where they had to choose between their morals and their futures. We had been pushed into a corner, and we had no choice but to cancel. To make matters worse, we couldn’t even cancel the walkout on our terms. Our assistant principal essentially wrote the Facebook post for us, unsatisfied with what we came up with ourselves.
We left his office worn out, our heads hung low. The rest of the night proceeded in a blur. I cried and cried, incredibly frustrated that something I believed to be so important, and that I had put that much work into, could be torn away so easily. We come to school every day to learn, not just about algebra and biology, but about ourselves, and about how we can actively contribute to our democratic society.
The entire movement following the Parkland shooting was centered around lifting the voices of students, and within mere instants, that power had been stripped away. As a sixteen year old, it is incredibly easy to feel powerless – I can’t vote, and I am under the control of my parents and the administration of my school pretty much all the time. This lack of power is exacerbated by the fact that adults often write teenagers off as unintelligent and unqualified. The way my assistant principal spoke to us was the perfect example: he told us that while he was sure we believed what we were doing was just, he (as an adult) believed we were being naive.
This ageism isn’t specific to just my school or my assistant principal – it’s something I experience every day. People love to hear that I’m involved in political activism, but then they talk both down to and over me when I try to voice my opinion. They question the validity of my research, and often leverage their age against me in arguments. With the walkout, we had decided to bypass the system in the hopes that our passion would prevail. However, when we were shut down so quickly and easily, it became incredibly clear that when you exist in an unfair system, it is sometimes impossible to overcome it. Often I have no choice but to work within the bounds of such systems because of my age and my gender.
Thinking back on this experience, it’s easy to let myself get upset. The situation was handled so poorly, and that isn’t any easier to grapple with now than it was a month ago. However, I have realised that even though we didn’t get to follow through with the originally intended walkout, what occurred instead was just as important – we started a conversation.
My peers talked amongst themselves about what meaningful activism looks like and about what common sense gun control means to them. My mom met with my assistant principal and presented him with some tough questions, like whether or not he was using his power in a productive way; this started a conversation among the parents and administration about how adults treat teens.
Perhaps most importantly, I started a conversation with myself. How do I define success? How can I reconcile the passion of my peers with my school’s hesitancy to support student-led initiatives? What am I going to do next time? While the plan for the walkout may never have come to fruition, it taught me something important – you can’t win every time, and when you don’t, it’s imperative you use the loss to grow and adapt, instead of letting it define you.