I didn’t expect the cheers that peppered my short speech. I was standing up in front of five hundred of my classmates, but what surprised me even more was the support that they showed. I didn’t realize that the students at my Midwestern, suburban school cared about this movement or believed that they could make a difference.
It started with an interview — just a small snippet of the school newscast one Tuesday morning dedicated to promoting the Gay-Straight Alliance, of which I am the co-president. I had been wondering how to let the school know about the walkout, and I decided to mention it when the reporter asked me, the next day, what events were coming up that the students should know about. I made sure to stress that the walkout was not a school-supported event, but I was afraid that the editors would just cut the segment. When the full interview showed on the news during math class, I was both excited and mortified. I had never been on the school news before. I hadn’t checked with the administration before talking about the walkout on the school news, so when I was called to the front office some time later, I was worried.
As it turns out, the principal called on four students who had “shown interest in the walkout,” myself included, to the office in order to set up a meeting to plan the event. From the get-go it felt to me that the principal was only helping us coordinate in order to control the situation. He emphasized safe schools and respect but did not allow us to talk about arms, guns, or our views of our current laws and what specifically needed to change. He stressed the need for political neutrality. Over the days leading up to the walkout, to our frustration, the principal kept calling the walkout a “student-led assembly,” which discouraged kids from going. What high schooler wants to go to an assembly? On Monday the 12th, there was a poster-making booth open during all lunch periods, and kids made inspirational signs like “Arms are 4 hugging!” But witty signs about gun control were just too much for our “supportive” administration.
On the day of the walkout, we had to read our scripts to the principal before school to make sure that they were acceptable. It would have been nice to be able to talk about what we need to do to move forward, including gun control. We persisted, however, and led the entire event with the administration looking on from below the speakers’ platform. We each spoke, and we read the names of all of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School victims. As one student leader was passionately chanting into the microphone near the end of the event, the principal intervened, eventually taking the mic away from her. That sucked, not only because he was restricting what she had to say, but also because he had specifically told us before the walkout that morning that he would let us tell the staff when the event was over, unless it went over the given timeframe. So as he snatched the microphone away from my friend, a passionate girl who was only saying that we need to fight back, all I could feel was that this walkout wasn’t really about us. I felt that the administration was only “helping” to organize the event because they knew that they couldn’t stop it, and they didn’t want to be “one of those schools” that disrespected the effort of the students and punished those who took part. I am glad the school “let” us participate, but they also used their “help” as a form of control. That’s what really gets to me. We are only trying to stand up for our right, as students, to a safer school environment, and the very same school that we are trying to benefit isn’t even letting us say what we really think. And yet, our school district’s Facebook page and website proudly posted pictures of the walkout, praising us for our promotion of safe schools and our honoring of the seventeen deceased Parkland students and staff.
It’s enraging that we students, who are so often criticized for our decisions and opinions and told that our “brains aren’t even fully developed yet,” are the ones tasked with protesting for our own safety. It’s sad that we, the students who are directly affected by our nation’s failure of responsibility, are the ones who have to lead this movement. We are the ones who, in many schools, are being suspended or given detentions because we stood up for ourselves and said #EnoughIsEnough. It disgusts me that some schools reprimanded students for taking part in the walkouts. I have a friend who lives a few towns over, who was confined to the school until she called her mother who was, at first, told that she could not talk to her daughter. My friend was suspended for two days because of her attempt to make a difference.
At the walkout, we handed out the (approved) posters, and it made me really happy to see people hoisting them up and cheering as the other student leaders and I spoke about how we demand change. I talked about how the students are the ones who need to stand up, and how happy I was that 500-some students had shown up to listen to others who shared their opinions. I wish I could have talked about how stricter gun laws and regulations would lower, if not end, mass shootings, as it has in other countries, such as Australia and Canada. The walkout was a success in my mind, and I’m very happy that I got to participate and help lead even a small part of such an important movement. Even out here in the white, exurban Midwest, we will not be silenced by those who believe that we should have no voice of our own, and we are willing to fight.
Zoë Steele is a sophomore at a high school outside of Chicago. She is co-president of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and loves theatre.