Every semester for my “Participation in Democracy” class, I challenge my students to change their community.
It starts by identifying a problem in the school: Students typically tackle the dress code or delaying the school start time. They develop plans, form groups and then take action with petitions or public service announcements. The lesson lies in the difficulties of mobilizing people to make meaningful change.
This semester, a golden egg landed in the laps of my juniors.
Shortly after the Parkland, Florida, school shootings, students across the country began discussing a nationwide walkout. A few students asked if they could change their action plan topic. They wanted James Campbell High School to walk out.
I did the only thing I could: I let them go.
Anybody who has children, or works closely with them, knows this is one of the most rewarding and worrying actions you have to take: I knew that their success or failure had to rest on their own shoulders. After all, if I had organized them, it would not have been a student walkout.
Over the following weeks, inter-class groups were discussing the logistics and messaging needed to create a meaningful action. This was assisted by vocal support from Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who directed administrators to create designated walkout spaces on campus and enable students’ rights to free speech.
Principal Jon Henry Lee set aside the central Saber Hall Lawn for student action. Another teacher, Christine Russo, placed an announcement in the bulletin allowing students her room to coordinate the action for any interested students. I pointed it out to my class, but did not attend.
On Wednesday, at 9:45 a.m., some of my students asked to be excused to go to the Saber Hall lawn. Ten minutes later, I informed the rest of the class that I was walking out to show solidarity for my students in their efforts, and anyone could join me. Everyone did.
I felt anxious walking across campus. What if no one came? What if it was just a bunch of awkward teenagers standing around?
Saber Hall stage, a raised cement half circle, was surrounded by 17 empty desks, one for each of the people who lost their lives in the Florida shootings. Each desk displayed a name of a victim, and a few flowers to honor their memory. The walkout organizers, equipped with a wireless mic and sound system, looked out as the lawn slowly filled with students.
A few of the organizers left the stage to pass out orange ribbons with safety pins as a symbol of solidarity. Two of the organizers spoke, words broken by the wind and connection interference. The gathered students listened quietly.
The organizers then invited any student in the crowd to speak.
I froze. All week leading up to the walkout I had heard the criticism. Yes, it may do more good if students walk up to someone they do not know instead of walking out of class. No, the students of James Campbell High School do not have to worry about school shootings the way students in other states do. Yes, they are just teenagers.
But they had things to say.
“We want to be safe!” Caleb Barney yelled into in the mic. The crowd erupted. “No more will they keep us silent,” he said, repeating the hashtag of the day: #nomore.
Motioning to the desks in front of her, Trinity Wheeler asked: “What if that was your name? What if that was my name? What if it was your sister’s name? Your brother’s name? The reason we are doing this today is to make this personal.”
Darian Haynes was next: “They tell us to act like adults, and when we act like adults, and we do this stuff, they tell us to sit back down and act like kids.”
I stood in awe as speakers kept getting up and hitting the issue on the nose. Students called upon each other to stop bullying, quit fighting and start living aloha.
“We are Hawaii. We are love. Where has it gone?” asked Shawna-Lei Demitrial.
As the gathering stretched past the allotted 17 minutes, administrators and security guards swept the lawn, urging students to return to class. The organizers huddled in a huge group hug, beaming in their accomplishment.
It had not been perfect. Only about a third of the student body attended. Almost no one was wearing orange, the designated color of solidarity. There were not enough ribbons. Some of the speakers got overly angry or went on tangents. Others did not really care about what was going on.
But Caleb Barney said it better than I could: “If we don’t start now, when is change going to come? This is our first action to show that we want change.”
There will be many more throughout their lives.
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