Kelsey Langel: Students speaking up and making change
As a high school teacher, I wish you could see what I see. I wish you could hear what I hear. I wish you knew what I knew.
As a community, we see the division that is happening across our nation. We hear from the left and the right and all the messy places in between. We know there is a problem. Where our differences lie are, obviously, in the solution.
And solutions abound. Since the Parkland shooting, the students in my classes have wanted to talk, a lot. They talk about solutions. They talk about how scared they are, how angry they are, how helpless they feel. They debate whether or not we need to change our mental health treatments. They express that they don’t like the way our nation “feels” right now. They share their passions for hunting and how they are champions of trap shooting competitions. They talk about their fear that those activities will be taken away. They talk, and talk, and talk. And me? I listen. I listen, they talk.
Students aren’t the only ones talking. Leading up to the nationwide walkout, I couldn’t help but get lost in the Facebook comments in response to The Union’s article about local schools’ plans regarding it. I tried not to get sucked in, but I just kept reading. I kept telling myself, “Don’t respond, don’t respond. It won’t be good for anybody. It won’t help your school. It won’t help your students.”
You see, I’ve been teaching long enough to have developed a fairly tough skin when it comes to hearing comments about teachers and what we’re doing to ruin students’ educations, how we push our “liberal teacher agendas,” how we don’t let students think for themselves and expect them to regurgitate definitions of hyperbole, simile and onomatopoeia. I know that’s not what we do, and that’s always been enough for me. This is different. This time, I was struck not by our community’s lack of faith in educators, but by our community’s lack of faith in students.
During our passing period, I stood on the outskirts of the student-staged walkout at Nevada Union. It was silent while over 200 students lay on the ground in remembrance of the lives lost in Florida, stood for issues important to them and spoke out for safer schools. What brought tears to my eyes wasn’t what they were standing for, but the simple fact that they were standing for something and that they had prepared and planned for this, educated themselves on the issues, on their own, while respecting academic time and other students’ right to learn.
I won’t pretend for a minute that no students treated this like a “get out of class free” pass; being with 150 teenagers a day for the last decade has taught me more than that. On our campus, consequences did exist and students had to make the choice about the worth of their issue and the weight of the consequence. The students decided, on their own, that instead of leaving classes at 10 a.m. when the rest of the nation did, they would leave second period five minutes early, use their 10-minute passing period and return to third period two minutes late — a total of 17 minutes — one for each life lost in Florida. Students were given cuts and tardies for leaving classes and arriving late.
This was the cornerstone for me, the true lesson in this process, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in action.
Students were not given a “free pass out of class” like many of our Facebook community members touted and used as a means to discredit student efforts — they had real-life, logical consequences and chose to stand up for what they believe anyway. That lesson is one not many of them will forget. It’s one that will keep their momentum going, give them power to keep speaking up, and to keep making change, change in something.
That week, I didn’t see a solution to our nation’s problems. I didn’t hear any definitive answers about what we can do. I don’t know how much of an impact was made. What I did see were students empowered by one another to start a movement. What I heard was silence as students showed respect to the lives lost. And most importantly, what I now know is that this generation has come one step closer to developing the grit and drive to make change, and that is something worth talking about.
Kelsey Langel lives in Nevada City.
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