The following are excerpts from essays commissioned by Penn professor and bestselling author Lorene Cary’s SafeKidsStories as encouragement to the young people who have organized Saturday’s march on Washington—with sister marches throughout the country, including Philly—in favor of common sense gun legislation. Read the full stories, and others, here.
Footsteps Can Make a Difference
Footsteps on tile. Footsteps on cement. Footsteps on pavement.
Boots. Sneakers. Sandals. Hundreds and thousands of feet pounded the ground as students walked out of schools on March 14th to protest gun violence. In the wake of the Florida shooting, students are finding their voices and quite literally standing up to lawmakers.
But does it mean anything?
As a current college student, I feel very connected to these high school students. It was only a few years ago that I was also sitting in a high school classroom. I’m proud of them for raising their voices, but I can’t help but doubt that any real change will occur. Terrible things happen every day from car accidents, to wars, to shootings. For me, it al blurs together into white noise. To focus on each terrible event would be paralyzing. As such, I have let gun violence in schools fade into this whir of horror that exists at the periphery. Unfortunately, lawmakers have too.
This has led me to wonder about the effectiveness of protest. Do lawmakers really care about students who can’t vote, can’t donate thousands of dollars to their campaign, and don’t have connections to the “right” people? Why should lawmakers pick these voices out from the white noise of terrible happenings? It is easy to use soothing words and make empty promises. It is easy to ignore people who don’t have any political power.
But recent events have made me realize my mistake. Students do have political power. They just can’t vote yet. However, their voices can still be heard. These protests are a medium through which to get people—lawmakers and voters alike—to listen. What these students lack in money and power, they make up for in numbers. It’s these numbers that break through the veil of white noise. The large groups of students that are leaving classrooms and organizing campaigns force parents, teachers, and communities to take notice. People who can vote are watching and listening.
Within the next decade, these students will join the ranks of voters. In the next 20 to 30 years, these students will be the lawmakers. In a time when America’s voter participation rate is falling, citizens like these are who we need: people who care about the issues, about the laws, and people who care about each other without backdoor deals and money getting in the way.
Next time I question whether a change can occur from these protests, I’ll look to the future. That’s where these students are leading us. They are embracing a time where issues, not money or political parties, drive people.
So keep the footsteps coming. Footsteps can make the earth shake. Footsteps can make a difference.
These Kids Will Not Be Silenced
Cell phones recorded what happened during the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on February 14th. Social media platforms allowed these videos to spread, lighting a fire among high school students—not just in Florida but across the nation. We saw Parkland students’ fear first hand. Then, just days after, we saw powerful videos of these same students taking a stand for their safety.
There have been eight school shootings in 2018 alone, but the Parkland shooting is the first one that has sparked such a response from high schoolers. The horrifying images following Columbine in 1999 and Sandy Hook in 2012 were published in the The New York Times and on CNN—mainstream media everywhere. These images were seen by teenagers, but didn’t motivate them to take things into their own hands. Why? Maybe the response is different now because kids are in direct contact with peers who were affected by the shooting.They’re not responding to newscasters, but to students who seem no different from themselves; students who appeared to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The national walkout was one of many events that have demonstrated that these students will not stop until their safety is taken seriously. High schoolers are leading us into battle on the issue of gun control in our nation—shaping the future one social media post at a time.
These kids will not be silenced.
What’s the Use of Words?
Two weeks ago, a teacher in my high school was the target of a violent threat, and my high school went on lockdown. My 10th grade brother sat against the back wall of his chemistry room, shaking in fear of who might have been walking down the hallway, what they might have been carrying, and what they might be intending to do with it. Thankfully, the threat was resolved, and no students were harmed physically. But emotionally, that is a different story.
“Thoughts and prayers” won’t cut it anymore – the nation has roared unanimously of late. They are words – nice words, soft words, but they implode each time another attack or threat of one occurs. But good words, strong words, the right words said to the right people at the right time, those are words that can make a difference. They can’t right the wrongs of gun violence attacks that have already happened. But they might be able to prevent the next ones.
Nothing changes if no one says anything.
What Silence Can Teach Us About Being Loud
Silence and noise, when is each appropriate? We live in a time of loud voices surrounding gun control — loud voices for, and loud voices against. We are also in a time of silent voices, the millions of people who see the senseless tragedy, who hear the debate, and yet, caught in the middle of all the angry and loud and confusing voices, say nothing.
There is power in loud voices. But there is also a power in silent ones, in reflection, in thinking on what your voice—capable of becoming loud—might say if it did.
I grew up in a Quaker high school, where every Thursday morning we trudged across the street through the cold and the rain or the distracting sunshine to a small plain building where we’d sit, in complete silence, for one hour. If someone felt moved to speak, they stood and they spoke. If no one felt moved to speak, we sat in silence.
Each voice was different and yet each voice was received in the same manner, coming from a room of silence, and returning it to that place once finished. There was a respect implicit in this silence that I have not encountered in other places in my life. There was the silence that had gone into the speech, the time the speaker spent sitting in silence, thinking about standing, thinking about what they would say once they had stood. There was the silence that lasted throughout the speech, the silence around the speech, which changed and shaped the airwaves around each and every student and teacher in that room, which enabled them to listen to it, to think about it. And there was the silence that followed, in which the words continued to circulate through the silent building, the words that had not come from a preacher, that had not even come from the front of the room, and yet, were still meaningful, were still important. There was silence in that speech, and it gave that speech the power to be heard.
On March 14th, the day of the nationwide walkout, my old high school led a Walkout For Peace. They had a 17-minute silence in the central quad, one minute for each victim of the Parkland school shooting. I can say from my own experience that moments of silence can be incredibly powerful. They unite a group of people in a way that is universal, that can be understood by all and yet interpreted uniquely by each person. They inspire people to truly think about what it is that matters to them about the issue at hand; they inspire people to say something about it once the time for silence has ended.
I encourage you to engage in this kind of silence — the right kind of silence, the kind that centers, the kind that precedes a loudness of great power because it is imbued with the thoughts and the energy that you built, carefully, in a time of reflection. I encourage you to do this so that when you stand and when you speak, you just might be powerful enough to change that space around you, and with that, to have changed the world.
How to Stop a School Shooting: First, Reach Out, Then VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE
I haven’t been directly impacted by a school shooting, but that doesn’t mean I’m not outraged.
I ask you this, what next? What more can WE do, as students, as peers, as members of this school community?
A friend recently sent me an open letter from retired teacher David Blair, addressed to students walking out of schools across the country. This letter made me think a little more deeply about my role as an activist in this movement.
Here is what Mr. Blair has to say:
First of all, put down your stupid phone.
Look around you at your classmates. Do you see the kid over in the corner, alone? He needs a friend. He needs you. Go and talk to him, befriend him. Chances are, he won’t be easy to like, but it’s mainly because no one has tried to like him. Ask him about him. Get to know him. He’s just like you in that respect; he wants someone to recognize him as a fellow human being but few people have ever given him the chance. You can.
Next, see that kid eating lunch all alone? Invite him to eat with you. Introduce him into your fold of friends. You’ll most likely catch a lot of flack from the friends you eat with because they don’t want him upsetting the balance of their social order. After all, who you hang out with is critical to your status, is it not? If status is important to you, don’t you think it’s important to him also? The only difference being that he has no status because generally, shooters have no friends. Are you serious about wanting to make your school safe? Invite him to your lunch table and challenge your friends to do something meaningful with thirty minutes of their lives each day.
Keep talking about this. We are the change we have been waiting for. We can’t let this issue fade away.
Lastly, are you completely frustrated by that kid who always disrupts your class and is consistently sent to the principal’s office? Do you know why he causes so much trouble? He initiates disruption because that’s the only thing he does that gets him attention, and even bad attention is better than the no attention he receives from you and your classmates. You secretly wish he would get kicked out of school or sent to the alternative disciplinary school so that he wouldn’t disrupt your classes anymore, that somehow, he would just disappear. Guess what? He already feels invisible in a school of hundreds of classmates, you included. So, before he acts out in your next class, why don’t you tell him you’d be willing to help him with the assignment that was just given? Or why don’t you ask him to join your study group? If you really want to blow his mind, ask him for help on the assignment. He’s never been asked that. Ever.
These words have given me pause in my own life. I am guilty of overlooking those who are invisible to most. I do not leave the comfort zone of my station and raise my eyes to others who may be in need, in solitude, or in crisis. This is something that I need to change. This is something I can change.
I can prevent a shooting, and so can you. This is one of the most important messages I can give. Make a connection. I’m going to.
But this is not only about making a connection with other humans. This nationwide student driven walkout was planned both to honor the lives of the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas, victims of school violence, and to press lawmakers to pass stricter gun control laws.
I want to ask every one of you to contact our representatives and if you are 18, to VOTE this November. The internet has made this so easy for us! It is a simple as a text of “RESIST” to 50409. This “resistbot” will help you write a message to your officials in your own words about any issue. It takes less than 5 minutes. Please let your voice be heard politically, because despite what everyone is saying, the voices of students like us can make a difference. Tell your parents, tell your neighbors, tell your teachers, tell your priests.
Keep talking about this. We are the change we have been waiting for. We can’t let this issue fade away.
—Willow StrotherPhoto: Lorie Shaull via Flickr