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When the actions of our present government make you despair that Americans have lost their sense of right and wrong as well as their empathy for suffering, look around you. See the #neveragain movement of young people who refuse to accept the cold murders of their peers as simply sad. See them stand up for common sense in the face of scorn. We have been keeping the soul of America safely locked away within the breasts of our youth.
Long ago, when I first chose to begin my career in education by teaching high school, my friends asked me how I could STAND working with teenagers every day. Stand? My first years teaching high school were some of my happiest. As untouchable and detached as teenagers may want to appear, they have a fierce set of values. I’m generalizing, of course. Some schools seem to foster more jealousy, bullying, and apathy than others. But a high school can be a kind of family where people may not like one another, but they work together.
Like the coaches, I had to earn respect by being real—telling the truth as best I knew it. I treated my students as colleagues. I stood up for them when they were falsely accused and listened to problems they didn’t want to tell their parents. In return, my students helped me when no colleagues would and rallied behind me when the administration thought my ideas were too nontraditional. Together, we ran an inclusive prom, homecoming, and graduation, as well as a play and a musical every year. Yes, high school kids are capable. They took care of me.
I left to teach in higher education, and letters from my former colleagues told me the students had changed. They had lost their respect, industry, and willingness to work together. I noticed that my community college students refused to air their opinions so they wouldn’t have to defend them. Perhaps young people really had become fearful, lazy, and selfish. And perhaps not.
The students in Parkland, Florida, teared up as they described how their teachers did their best to protect them from the shooter. When a teacher gives his life for you, you can’t deny you’re loved. You can’t deny someone has passed a torch to you. You can’t deny you have a chance to live a significant life when many of your friends don’t. No wonder the students are ready to stand up for anyone else who might become a victim in the future. Although they’re traumatized, they’re determined to make a difference. And that is how movements begin.
People who don’t want to hear the message the students are carrying try to mollify them with offers of trivial changes to the law or empty words. Some attack them with lies and denigrating comments. Many throw up their hands and say there is no way out for America. But teenagers are used to living in a difficult social environment. Unlike many of us who would prefer to turn away from conflict in self-defense, they model a motto from the sixties: “If you aren’t a part of the solution, then you’re a part of the problem.”
They will vote soon. Yes, I believe they WILL vote. They will echo the Verizon commercial that asks, “Can you hear me now?”