Have you ever seen ninety 13-year-olds spend 17 minutes together in silence? It doesn’t happen often, but it happened today.
We walked out.
We didn’t go far — just to the sidewalk outside our campus — but it was enough for teachers to cry, students to inspire themselves, and one counter-protester to show up.
A group of 8th graders did the bulk of the planning, making a presentation, putting up flyers around campus, and brainstorming how we would spend our 17 minutes. Ultimately, they decided to spend it creating. We ordered a bunch of sidewalk chalk, and for 17 beautiful and heartbreaking minutes approximately 450 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders covered the area around our campuses with their hope, love, anger, sadness, and determination. I have never been simultaneously more proud and sad as a teacher.
These kids, they didn’t question why this is an issue. They know it in their bones. They know it because they’ve never known an America where school shootings weren’t regular parts of life, where active shooter drills weren’t always routine practice. They think increasing security is a bad idea and arming teachers a terrible one. They also often speak about how nothing can be done about it, that “this is just the way things are”, that no one is going to listen to kids anyway.
Which is why today mattered so much.
Afterwards, while we were processing, one student said, “I felt powerful and encouraged. Like working together we could make a stop to it.” Another said, “It feels relieving. We learned all about this and got to form our own opinions. If we feel mad or passionate, it feels relieving to let it out and do something about it.” The general consensus, more simply, seemed to be That felt good.
During those 17 mostly-silent minutes, some kids talked to each other, and some kids laughed and made jokes. Of course they did. How else do you cope with the magnitude of what you’re up against? How else do you say enoughwhile simultaneously wondering if our school could be next? How else do you even focus on learning every day?
Or maybe I’m projecting now. How else do I cope with the magnitude of what I’m up against? How else do I say enough while simultaneously wondering if our school could be next? How else do I focus on teaching every day?
Maybe that’s why I cried.
I cried twice, actually. Once, in the classroom, looking at their faces as they prepared to walk out. Christ, they were determined. There was no doubt, no confusion, no nervous smiles. Only determination and pride. As they settled into themselves, the feeling in the room changed. They became, for a moment, transcendent. And so, charged with purpose, we walked out.
The second time I cried, it was through sheer awe. Everywhere I looked, kids were brainstorming ideas or helping one another color in hearts or writing down Bernie Sanders quotes or covering every available surface with #enough. Everywhere I looked, I saw love.
Then a neighbor across the street showed up with his “Don’t Tread On Me” flag and ruined the mood.
I was having my emotional moment when a couple boys came up and asked me if “don’t tread on me” was an NRA, pro-gun phrase. When I told them yes, they said I should turn around, because a guy was waving an NRA, pro-gun flag across the street. He waved me over, and I crossed the street so we could chat.
The conversation, while not-quite friendly, was civil. He wasn’t upset about their protesting — he said he’d have no problem if they marched or made signs — but about their covering the sidewalk with anti-gun slogans and images. He said it was vandalism, and in his day he’d have been arrested. What he really meant, I think, was that he didn’t like what he now had to see outside his front windows.
We went back and forth for a while — at one point he said he’d call the city and report us — before eventually ending the conversation. We had a right to protest, and he had a right to protest our protest. I went back to my side of the street, and he stayed on his.
In hindsight, I wish I had thanked him. See, until that moment, the forces we were opposing became invisible. We live in Los Angeles and aren’t exactly surrounded by conservatives or NRA supporters. The entire school, including our principal, supported and was involved in the walkout. Seeing someone oppose them suddenly made the act of walking out and protesting more real. It made them feel powerful. Afterwards, a student said, “Him coming out really put things in perspective with me. It sounds cheesy, but we have to understand that there’s gonna be people who bring us down. All of us together was really powerful.”
I’m also glad that they were able to see civic discourse. He and I disagreed, and I think it’s ridiculous for a grown man to try and intimidate a group of 13-year-olds, but we were able to actually talk to one another. That isn’t much, but it’s something.
Kids developed consciousness today, felt how good communal action can feel.We spent a few moments reflecting on the fact that, for 17 minutes, we were part of a movement involving thousands of other students, all acting with the same purpose. We were connected. That connection is humbling, addicting, and worth chasing.
I don’t know where we go from here. In my class we recently finished writing Activist Letters about either abolition or gun control (the gun control option was a late addition) and are in the midst of a unit on social change. I’m curious to see how this action spills into our other work. I’m working on developing a plan with kids for the April 20 walkout day.
And everyone — teachers, kids, and the few proud parents who drove by to take pictures — gets to go home and say I did something today
Also — a few minutes after I talked to our friendly neighbor, a city anti-graffiti van rolled up. They were there to clean up some actual graffiti and confirmed that we were, in fact, well within our rights.
Written By: Dan Thalkar