The Kids Are Alright: A Former Teacher's Reflection on the Parkland Protests
"I can't answer that."
My student responded with a look of disappointment before I continued. "I want you all to take an interest in politics, but I'm supposed to stay as neutral as possible. I can't tell you which candidate I support. You understand, right?" My student nodded, reluctantly.
Five months later, my contract was not renewed and I was let go by a charter school in eastern San Diego County. Despite the fact that I was teaching the apolitical subject of Spanish, I know deep down that I was dismissed for my progressive views, especially those expressed on social media. Sure, the official reasons given to me for my dismissal revolved around a curriculum that was deemed to not be challenging enough but I knew that was complete bullshit. I was teaching the exact same material as my peers and I was even producing equal if not higher test results. The only difference between myself and those in my department other than my lack of seniority was my leftward political leanings. I have no doubt these leanings were the reason that my conservative administration chose to let me go.
Since my dismissal in June of 2014 and my subsequent transition to community organizing, I have continued to keep my ear to the ground in terms of educational issues. The few of my peers who are still involved in the profession had unequivocal condemnation for the nomination and subsequent affirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Seeing DeVos turned away from a DC public school in February of 2017 along with succeeding protests at Bethune-Cookman University in May and Harvard in September gave me hope that Donald Trump's anti-education agenda would face stringent opposition. However, despite the public outcry against DeVos, there seemed to be little opportunity during the Trump Administration to make any meaningful type of positive change in the field of education. With DeVos at the helm and Republicans continuing to push for the continued privatization of our nation's schools, it appeared that education proponents would be in for a long four years.
Then Wednesday happened.
And for the first time since I left teaching, I felt a genuine hope in an education system that has been woefully inadequate in the face of our country's changing demographics. A system that perpetuates the status quo. A system that distributes resources based on zip code. A system that punishes rather than rewards improving schools. A system that in many places is more segregated now that it was in the 1950s. A system that disproportionately disciplines children of color. A system that serves as a conduit of the school-to-prison pipeline. It is a system that forces students to be cogs in a machine designed to prepare students to be nothing more than worker bees, incapable of reaching their true potential.
Until Wednesday, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were seen as simply average according to arbitrary but widely relied-upon statewide rankings. The school demographics show that the school is 41% students of color with 23% on free and reduced lunch. These demographics show the influx of students of color to the town of Parkland, a town of nearly 25,000 people and a reported demographic of being 84% White according to the 2010 census. That same town was recently named the 15th safest city in the country and it sits in Broward County, a blue area won by Hillary Clinton with 66% of the vote in 2016. Prior to last week, the top news Google search for the high school was a February 8th article on a joint project with the school's astronomy and chemistry classes creating and launching a projectile modeled after the Disney movie Up into space.
Sufficed to say, this is not an area known as a hotbed for educational innovation. Yet in the wake of last Wednesday's horrific shooting, students, led by the outspoken Emma Gonzalez, have made a forceful call to our nation's politicians who have once again failed to protect them and their friends from the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Since Newtown, Congress has been held prisoner by a terrorist organization masquerading as the gun lobby in this country. Despite near unanimous support by its members to act, the NRA has continued to overtly influence Republican congressmen to vote against any kind of key gun legislation that would do anything to disrupt the gun manufacturers' profit margins. When 25 dead elementary students could not change Republican minds, it seemed that the stranglehold the NRA had would continue for the foreseeable future.
But then Parkland happened. And for those of us who have been following public education issues, this one simply felt different. Combined with the live-stream social media component of the massacre and the raising up of powerful high school voices, Parkland now presents the NRA's toughest campaign to date. Because elementary school students can't hold the NRA's feet to the fire. But high school students who saw their peers and their friends murdered in cold blood can certainly try. Combined with an NRA stooge governor, a Republican senator who only ran because he was outraged after the Orlando shooting, and a tone-deaf president, the students of Parkland now have obvious recipients for direct, channeled criticism.
And channel it, they will. This is a generation of students who have endured lockdown drills since the first year they entered a public school classroom. They've grown up accustomed to seeing multiple shooting fatalities a year. Three of the worst mass shootings in our history have occurred during the Trump presidency and that's not counting the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting that happened six months before the election. The students are done being the mass shooting generation. They now feel empowered to speak their minds and call out whatever politicians they see fit. Right now they are setting their sights clearly on the NRA and Republicans who failed to protect them and their friends. They might not be able to vote but that doesn't mean they don't have a voice.
And with this newfound voice, students like Emma Gonzalez and her peers will continue to raise the issue. They are now "woke" as the kids say and they are not turning back. They are done with receiving thoughts and prayers of politicians. They can use Google to find NRA-backed donations and can share these numbers during press conferences. They can call out conservative mouthpieces like Tomi Lehran for not having been physically there and having experienced what they did. They can plan an upcoming trip to Tallahassee to meet with their elected officials. They can use social media to garner a following of supporters and mobilize those supporters to take action. Already there have been two proposed national walkouts to protest congressional inaction on gun violence. All of these actions are student-driven by a group of student leaders who are now realizing they have an opportunity to succeed where countless adults have failed.
As one of those adults who failed, I could not be more proud to see what the students of Parkland are doing. They are taking up the mantle of an issue that many of us in and around the education field feel passionately about. But whereas we were pigeonholed by our administrators, these students face no such constraints. They can dare to be outspoken and not have to worry about being pink-slipped at the end of the year. For every teacher past and present who has wanted to get behind a microphone and absolutely rip apart the NRA, the students of Parkland are doing what we wish we could have done and they are doing it better than we ever could. They are pragmatic, passionate, and most importantly, pissed off. When they speak, people listen and if the NRA isn't listening yet they will be soon. Because if it's one thing former teachers know about high school students, it's that they won't be quiet unless they absolutely have to be.
And right now, these students know they don't have to be quiet any longer.
Like what you read? Chip in, keep us going.