Sometimes in San Diego County, when too many people run their air-conditioning all at once, we have blackouts. The first time a blackout happened after I moved here, one neighbor shouted across the street to me: “There’s a blackout! I think it might be terrorism! But don’t worry, I have lots of guns in my house. Come on by if you need to.”
This startled me but it did not alarm my other neighbors. They know there are many pockets of gun country here in southern California. The elementary schools know it, too, so they sent everyone a note in late February that said:
As many of you are aware, there are organizations that are supporting school walkouts on different days with various focuses, including gun violence. The district recognizes that students have a powerful voice that can affect change. As educators, we want to support our students as they grapple with current issues. In our district, however, our students range from kindergarten to sixth grade and for every family that discusses gun violence and school shootings; there are also families that feel this topic is not appropriate for their children. We are aware that what is right for one family is not right for another and we always work to create balance. In light of this, for any of the planned school walkouts, we are asking that students, parents and teachers remain on campus.
In other words: for the sake of balance, please remain silent.
I read this to my children and also told them about an old slogan: “Silence = consent.” My kids declared they would walk out. They’re my kids, and they have the same reaction I have to being asked to stay quiet: it makes them want to be louder.
I reached out to their principals. My town has two elementary schools, one for kindergarten through third grade and another for third through sixth. Both principals suggested that my children walk out to someplace private that was still on school grounds. The upper-elementary school offered the school auditorium, while the lower-elementary school told me that my son was the only one interested in walking out and suggested he walk out to the principal’s office. In other words, don’t walk “out.”
I checked with my kids, who declared they would walk out to some place that was public.
My six-year-old son observed, with awe, “Grown-ups are always telling kids not to backtalk, but you just backtalked the principal!” This was the first lesson of the walkouts. I got to explain to my son why we choose to speak up on this issue and why respectful engagement with authorities is not quite backtalk.
The second lesson of the walkout began with the question: how to spread the word? I started chatting with other parents at kindergarten drop off and pick-up, where I discovered that I was the only one outraged by the emailed request for no walkouts – partly because it turns out I may be the only one I know who actually reads the school’s weekly emails at all. I posted about it on Instagram and Facebook, then I hesitated before texting the other kindergarten moms. We have a text-message thread that contains upwards of 30 messages a day, usually joking about drinking too much wine, inviting others to meet afterschool at parks, and planning what to wear to the PTA gala. It is not a thread with every school parent on it, it is just a group of popular moms, and so I hesitated. What if I offended someone? What if my son and I stop getting invited to afterschool park dates? My rebellious teenage self would have hated the mom I have become – but my rebellious teenage self also lived in a liberal East Coast enclave and never got invited to events with the popular kids anyway. I thought about it, then I texted everyone on the kindergarten mom thread.
This was met with utter silence.
Later, three of the cool moms pulled me aside to quietly tell me I was brave. This is American politics in 2018: it is perceived as brave to seek to support our kids who want to speak up for school safety.
The Women’s March youth organizers had had a form where student walkout organizers could sign up for professional coaching, so I registered my kids, neither of whom have their own email addresses yet. I emailed the coach for them, asking for tips on publicizing the walkout. Aditi Juneja wrote back, counseling my kids to think about how her classmates hear about a good movie or anything else trending, and to use those same channels of communication. My older daughter started talking to friends. On March 12 and 13, parents started texting me: “Your daughter just persuaded my kid to walk out. What do I need to know about it?” I passed on the message from the principal, that kids walking out had to opt-in by having their parents contact the principal before March 14. We seethed together that our schools were not more supportive of our kids.
The evening before the walkouts, another parent held a sign-making and ice-cream party so our kids could feel solidarity across the local schools. Clever middle-schoolers wrote “NRA = Not Representing America,” while six-year-old Natalie wrote simply and poignantly: “I march because I am sad kids are dead. I am done.”
The lower-elementary principal had asked my son not to mention guns, in order not to terrify other young children, so his sign said, “Keep Our Schools Safe.” He carried it proudly into school on March 14 and then announced to his friends: “I’m not mentioning guns!” I learned from other teachers that they are so afraid of mentioning guns that, during their regular school lockdown drills, they invent stories about what they might be hiding from. An aggressive dog might escape from the dog park next door, they tell the kids, or a train carrying dangerous chemicals could derail from the tracks across the street from their school, as if that is less terrifying than the truth.
My son is not terrified. He knows that California does have better gun laws than many other states. He feels safe in our loving little beach town, and told me: “That’s why we have to speak up mom, because other people don’t have as much love, so it’s harder for them to speak.” He has a t-shirt that says “Standing on the Side of Love for Social Justice,” but that was the first time I realized that he knows what that means.
My son turned out to be one of only three kids who chose to walk out of his elementary school. To my regret, I honored the principal’s request to stay away during school hours. Natalie’s mom sent me a photo of my boy, standing alone on his school athletic field, and I was startled to realize how much bravery it takes to be one of only three students to walk out.
My daughter ended up walking out with more than 30 of her classmates. Our town’s mayor arrived to support the kids and invited my daughter to speak. This was, perhaps, the most profound lesson of the walkout. “The mayor says I am an organizer,” she reported. This was news to her, but not to me, and may be the most profound lesson of the walkouts overall.
The East LA Blowouts happened not far from here, in 1968, and helped consolidate the Chicano movement. Our history is full of the power of student walkouts. May this one join that tradition.
Elaine Lewinnek is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.