IT’S TIME WE LISTENED AND LEARNED FROM THE CHILDREN
They don’t want to die in school
By the time I attended high school in the 1970’s the Viet Nam War was over, and with it the draft. I had no fear of dying in some far-off rice paddy. In no particular order my biggest fears were: (1) some athletic coach making me run or skate extra laps because I screwed something up; (2) did I study enough for some particular test; and (3) would Annie still like me tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. That was it. That was about the sum-total of my fears. I wasn’t afraid of guns in schools. I wasn’t consumed with a fear that my friends and I could be mowed down by a fellow student or adult with a weapon and an ample supply of ammunition. I was just a teenager with my hopes and dreams, and a reasonable expectation that I had my whole life ahead of me. Things have gone horribly sideways since that time.
As I write this, I am currently in my 15th year on the Board of Education of the public-school system in the small City in which I have resided with my wife and family for the past 34 years. Our high school has chapter of a national club called S.E.E.D. (Students Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity). It is an amazing place. Facilitated by two incredible teachers. The student officers of the club run the meetings. The student members select the topics that will be discussed at each meeting, and they put together meeting agendas to support each topic. The club has members who reflect the beautifully diverse tapestry of our student body.
As selected by the students, the topics of the S.E.E.D. meetings run the gamut of current political, social, global and other issues. The students are encouraged to select topics that are important to them, and they learn how to have respectful conversations with each other, even when they passionately disagree. Wow. Imagine if adults could do that?
What I have learned from these meetings is that we (adults) spend too much time talking at kids and having conversations with kids that really aren’t conversations. If you are familiar with the old Charlie Brown holiday specials on television, then you know how adult voices are portrayed as meaningless blaring notes. Well many “conversations” we have with kids often turn into those meaningless sessions.
What I have also learned is that when encouraged and given the opportunity, kids speak their inciteful, intelligent and well-reasoned truths that adults really need to listen to or learn from. Kids are barometers of their times. They are on the ground experiencing it all, witnessing it all, and being impacted and traumatized by it all. In return, we run them some crap about how they don’t really know, about how they are too young, about how they don’t understand the complexities of things, and about how they should follow our lead. Well, they see what our lead, and the leads of preceding generations, has resulted in. They see a world that is increasingly divided, a world where climate change is real and is already impacting lives, a world that is harsh and unfriendly, a world where the shooting deaths of students and staff in schools (which are supposed to be safe havens) is a frequent and common occurrence and where nobody does anything about it, and a world where adults cannot even get on the same page in response to a pandemic despite the fact that almost 800,000 in the United States have died. They saw how when one of theirs, Gretta Thunberg, stood up and spoke the simple truth about climate change, she was ridiculed and demonized by a sitting United States President.
Following the latest school massacre, the one at Oxford High School in Michigan on November 2, 2021, the students of S.E.E.D. felt it critical that they quickly schedule a meeting and discuss the event. That meeting took place on the afternoon of December 13, 2021. I received an e-mailed invitation to the meeting. I always try to attend S.E.E.D. meetings, but I cannot always do so because of my work as an attorney or other commitments. However, I felt it essential that I hear from our students on this topic and participate in this critical conversation.
Just a little background before I describe the meeting, the Oxford High School event was the 222nd school-related shooting in the United States of 2021. As such, we are grimly on record pace. Including the shooting at Columbine in 1999, which is generally regarded as the event that ushered in this new era of dead children and staff, more than 300 students have been killed in such incidents, more than 485 have been injured, and more than 278,000 students have had their lives impacted by these events.
As the toll of dead and injured students and staff has inexorably climbed since Columbine, and as our Country has refused to have a broad national conversation on the causes of the incidents and ways to prevent them, Boards of Education have increasingly had to expend funds on security consultants, the hardening of schools, lockdown and active shooter drills, etc. As such, funds are at times being diverted from the educational programs that schools are supposed to deliver. It is incredible that this should happen in the United States of America.
Just a few years ago it would have been incomprehensible that we would treat the deaths of young people and school staff as acceptable losses in much the same manner as we treat war dead. However, it does seem we have come to that as the Country has taken no unified measures to investigate and study the causes of these atrocities and has done absolutely nothing to stop them. All we hear from those opposing any action is that, somehow, the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is sacrosanct, and that it outweighs everything else, even the lives of children. This is of course absurd inasmuch as all rights guaranteed by the Constitution are subject to reasonable restriction when necessary. Moreover, how can it be that the right to bear arms has somehow become more significant than the right to exist?
It was against this backdrop that I went the S.E.E.D. gathering. It was attended by perhaps 40 people, including students and various adult staff. We sat in a large circle. The session lasted two hours. I found it to be both terribly sad and hopeful. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, we addressed the questions of whether active shooting drills and lockdowns are frightening, and whether news of shootings is also frightening. It was sobering to hear the students disclose their various personal levels of fear and discomfort, worry and concern. However, it was particularly disheartening and sad to hear how many of the students felt that the continual onslaught of these events had normalized them; like these events were just part of the landscape of their high school experience. That kids in this Country should feel this way is tragic. That is the type of trauma I never would have expected to happen in the U. S. of A.
Reflecting on the Oxford High School tragedy, we next answered four questions: (1) did we think the parents of the shooter should have been charged with one or more crimes; (2) why do these events keep happening; (3) what steps can be taken to prevent such incidents; and (4) do we think we can stop these shootings? Each meeting attendee was given post-it notes. Without any discussion, and in silence, we answered each question on separate post-it notes, and then walked around the classroom to the large sheets of paper hung in the corners of the room. There was one sheet of paper in each corner, and on each sheet was one of the questions. We attached the appropriate post-it note that answered the question on each of the four sheets of paper. As we walked around the room, we read the post-it notes that had been placed on each sheet of paper. The silence in the room during this exercise was moving and powerful.
We then returned to the circle and went around the room discussing the impact of the exercise. It was here that I found some hope. The students were of the belief that steps could be taken to curtail these actions, but that society just had to have the will to do something. The students were very appreciative of the high school principal, assistant superintendent for curriculum, department heads, social worker, board of education member, and other high-ranking adults who came to listen to and really engage with the students. The students felt like they had a voice and had been listened to, and they were correct in this feeling.
When it was my turn, I told the students that on every occasion when I attend a S.E.E.D. meeting I am uplifted by being in their presence because they speak their truths, express their feelings, give great insight, show great intelligence, and lead me to believe that there is some hope left in the world. I told them not to lose these abilities, but to grow, question authority and be the change they want to see in this world.
So now what do we do? Do we continue to ignore the voices of the living and the dead young people, and just sit back and watch the body counts rise? Do we blindly hold to our positions and do nothing and, in doing so, become accomplices to this unholy ongoing tragedy? Do we continue to subject developing children, from the ages of 5 to 18, to the ongoing trauma of active shooter drills, and the fear that they might not come home from school? Do we continue to treat masks and other lifesaving PPE as weapons that somehow harm kids, and at the same time ignore what is actually killing kids? Or, do we begin to act like adults? Do we begin the adult conversation of how not only keep kids safe, but how we can prevent these killings from happening? Do we have the will and courage to return schools to places of learning, warmth, love and safety, where kids can happily go to figure out their place in society, socialize and expect to grow up? Can schools once again become places where all kids need to worry about are the things that they ought to be worrying about, and not dying?
Go listen to a kid and learn something. One World/One Love. Peace.