By Patricia L. Schall, Ph.D., professor emeritus, NJCTE Executive Board Member, republished from the NJCTE Newsletter e-Focus, Issue #38, Spring Conference Renewal.
Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. … Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our society can remove this sickness from our land.”
Robert F. Kennedy
As I write, I am reflecting on Easter, a holiday my whole family celebrated with eggs, chocolate bunnies, new clothes, church, and traditional Italian food. When the family gathered around the holiday table at my grandmother’s house, the children were relegated to the kids’ table, a metal collapsible table brought out for the holidays. Joining the main table as a young adult was a genuine rite of passage.
As children at the kids’ table, however, we were expected to enjoy our dinner but keep the volume down, refrain from killing each other, and maintain the requisite distance from the adults and their conversation. In my family, kids were to be seen and not heard. Joe Giaquinta, one of my favorite NYU professors, once joked in class that his upbringing in a Sicilian-American home was not “an exercise in participatory democracy.” I’ll never forget that characterization of his family since it described my family so well.
I was a “nice” kid, and if I questioned the family rules, I mostly did so quietly, voicing my objections more often to my mother than my father, a man who did not tolerate children with opinions. My mother could be stubborn too, but she was more flexible; and, if you caught her at the right moment, more willing to listen to your grievances. Still, I knew my job was to listen and obey.
My quiet kid image persisted in school, which I loved and where I was the proverbial good kid. I did all my work and was eager to please teachers, though I remained quiet, especially while going through my adolescent years in middle school and high school. I rarely raised my hand to speak and would answer mainly if teachers called on me. While I might be roaring inside, I was reticent on the outside. I went through college as a student who faded into the back of the classroom, responding only if the professor called on me, and letting my political proclivities hang out as a writer and artist for the college humor magazine, Galumph. Once I started teaching and especially after I entered a Ph.D. program, I finally found the courage of my voice.
Perhaps my own history has made me admire the student activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. As I watch these students lead the nation in a fight for sensible gun regulations and school safety, I think about how unlike them I was at their age. They remain confident, exuberant, focused, articulate, and seemingly fearless in the face of many adults who aim to dominate them. They challenge legislators and well-funded, powerful groups like the National Rifle Association. They stand up to bullies in the media and especially in social media. Witness David Hogg’s takedown of Fox News commentator, Laura Ingraham, whose program lost many advertisers due to her media tirade against a high school student.
These young leaders refuse to back down when confronted by trolls whose vitriol and detached bravado grow exponentially with their virtual distance on Twitter and Facebook. These young women and men know how to use language to get things done in the world. They refuse to be victims.
When I was Emma Gonzalez’s age, I shook in fear when I had to speak in front of a class. Emma, however, addressed thousands of people from a stage in Washington, D.C. What courage! She now has 1.5 M followers on Twitter. David Hogg has 737.1K followers. Cameron Kasky, with 373K followers, summed up the student movement’s power in a tweet on 4/4/18: “For clarity–our elders are not bad people, I’m simply saying that social changes like this are so often brought about by the young and passionate. Countless people in generations before us have been infinitely kind to our movement, but we have to stand up. It’s never too early.”
Did these young men and women ever sit at the kids’ table? While the “Never Again” movement sprang from tragedy, these students were ready for action. They understand the power of solidarity and persistence. Adults are following their lead. Among those countless “kind people” who have supported the students and their initiatives are parents and teachers.
Some of the parents of the Parkland student activists have commented in the media about their continuing need to support their children as they pursue their hard-won mission and still provide them with the guidance all kids need to fulfill the typical responsibilities of students moving through high school, growing up, and preparing for college. Cameron’s father, Jeff Kasky, endorses his son’s mission, admitting, “We’re the ones who screwed this up and, fortunately, they have the wherewithal and the voice and the power to work on this.”
The educators and staff at Stoneman Douglas High School share the trauma of the losses, and many of them can take pride in their students’ commitment to a growing movement. As teachers ourselves, we can appreciate our colleagues in Florida who helped these students develop and manifest the literacy skills that have made them nationally recognized social activists. They can take some credit for helping them use reading, writing, speaking, and listening to get things done in the world. In harnessing the power of literacy, these students mastered social media to broadcast their message to the wider world. Parkland teachers must proudly recognize in their students’ accomplishments that there is more to teaching and learning than preparing students for standardized tests. Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, for instance, credit a social studies teacher who taught them valuable lessons about citizenship.
Many of the Parkland teachers, led by their students, participated in the March for Our
Lives too, while perhaps wondering about their own rights as citizens and educators who engage in protest and activism. The country may be seeing a new wave of civic activism as teachers engage in job actions, publicly revealing their frustration with legislators who refuse to hear their voices as educators and ignore their concerns about school safety, working conditions, benefits, salaries, and their right to more self-determination as professionals.
At NJCTE’s Annual Spring Conference, attendees posted messages of support on a graffiti wall and wrote notes and letters that were mailed to Stoneman Douglas High School. As educators, we believed it was important to stand with students and teachers in Florida and beyond. The gun violence that has plagued schools and other public place needs to end. There are more mass shootings in the USA than in any other country in the world. America tops the list of per capita gun ownership throughout the world.
These gun statistics remind us that we have reached the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Despite the undeniable progress made through the Civil Rights Movement, too many unresolved problems remain. Many residents of cities, especially unarmed young Black males, die in police shootings.
The Black Lives Matter Movement continues to fight hard to hold police accountable for these killings. Even people who are licensed and trained to use guns contribute to needless deaths. The concern with guns and their use extends beyond the statistics on mass shootings. As Robert Kennedy said, “Violence breeds violence.” People need to be safe where they live and learn.
NJCTE will continue to support teachers as they advocate for the school safety and a stronger voice in shaping the laws and regulations that govern their work. Professional organizations can help. NCTE has many resources for teachers to build their awareness of issues that affect their professional lives. Teachers also can look to their unions for additional support through the NJ Education Association (NJEA), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
As I consider these options we have to make our voices heard as professionals, I return to my reflections on my own life growing up in a home that was not an exercise in “participatory democracy.” I think my mother recognized my capacity to challenge the rules of the family and perhaps the world beyond. She had a good feel for her kids’ personalities and a habit of characterizing us with pronouncements about us as people. Her favorite comment about me, even into her old age, was, “Patty, well, Patty is a pain in the ass.”
Well, Mom, you were right! I finally escaped from the kids’ table, and I am confident that all of us can do the same. As Cameron Kasky said, “It is never too early.” I say, it is never too late.
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English