Teenagers and young adults born after 1995 are considered a part of Generation Z; more colloquially referred to as “iGen”, “the selfie generation”, or “the mass shooting generation”. Today’s high school students in the United States grew up surrounded by the events of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Parkland. Today’s high school students grew up surrounded by lockdown drills, metal detectors, always-locked doors, and clear backpacks. It’s as American as apple pie.
After the Parkland, Florida school shooting on February 14th, 2018, things were…different. Seventeen people never came home from school that day, and America was devastated. We had moments of silence, we lowered our flags to half mast, and why, we were downright gloomy for a few days after! But the survivors of Parkland had had enough; they weren’t going to let the news run its weekday cycle until something more interesting came up, like a Kardashian getting Botox. So they spoke out. First it was a trickle, then a stream, and then a flood of biblical proportions as they took to the press and to the streets. They demanded stricter gun control laws, captivated the world, and left Congressman quaking in their loafers. On March 14th, one month after the attack, Parkland students led the “March For Our Lives”, filling the streets of Washington, D.C. with an approximated 800,000 advocates for gun reform. If that estimate is correct, the march was the largest single-day protest in the history of the nation’s capitol. They were joined by sibling marches across the globe, and by a series of school walkouts across the country. High schoolers were busy writing to their senators, and registering to vote.
What was I doing on March 14th? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t anything as brave as what thousands of teenagers my age were doing across the country. I was on my grandparent’s couch, in jeans and an old t-shirt, finding out how events unfolded by means of the news app on my phone. In fact, I was on vacation! But don’t worry, everyone else from my school was too: the first walkout took place solidly in the middle of our spring break. Would I have been brave enough to walk out of my school? , I asked myself. Even if the administration said we couldn’t? The idea was laughable. Of course I would, I told myself, and didn’t give the question another thought. It’s what I believe in! …Right?
Spring break came to an end, and I was back home already on March 24th, when I attended my city’s own march supporting Parkland’s cause. At least one hundred people were there, despite the cold and rainy weather. I was glad I marched the two mile circuit, wrapped in two jackets and wielding an umbrella, but it wasn’t as much as I wanted to do. I considered myself an activist: I was a regular attendee of marches, rallies, and protests in my area; I dutifully wrote letters to my representatives, and I thought I was doing a good job for someone still too young to vote. The second planned school walkout – set for April 20th, the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine shooting – didn’t show up on my radar until a few days before it took place. It was suddenly the only thing people at school wanted to discuss: it was hotly debated in classes, in the halls, and online. In fact, it was a perfect storm: the walkout talk was gaining traction the same day the announcement was made that students would be required to wear IDs at all times for “security purposes prompted by current events”. The IDs were handed out to over two thousand students the Friday morning of the walkout, accompanied by an intercom announcement saying that no one would be permitted to leave the building due to “increased safety risks stemming from a break in routine”. Teachers were instructed to take down names of any students who walked out and submit lists to the office, and were explicitly banned from leaving their rooms to walk out with students. No students or teachers were told what the punishment would be for those who did walk out: the worst they could legally do was saddle us with a detention for skipping class, but the purposeful vagueness of the administration put images of chains and red-hot coals in student’s imaginations.
Would I walk out? The question had comfily set up camp in the back of my mind for a while, but morphed into plaguing concern twenty-four hours before students would leave their classrooms. It suddenly was real to me. I was never a stretcher of rules; I was a bookish, straight-A student who really did like school. I’d never had detention or even been snapped at by a teacher in my life. I got nervous and sweaty when I had to speak in class. I told myself that I supported what the walkout stood for, but felt it was unfair to rebel against the school administration, because I didn’t think they had done anything wrong. Sure, nobody thought that our shiny, color-coded new IDs would help anything - they became a quick joke, people holding them bravely over their hearts and calling them “bulletproof plastic” – but what else could the school do? They had good intentions, but that wasn’t enough. They didn’t write the laws.
On the other hand, I was part of the sizable portion of my generation that had grown up on books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Didn’t every teen hero I’d ever read about take a stand for what was right? Didn’t they face consequences at first, but still have a happy ending? Didn’t millions of Gen Z kids want to be more like Hermione? More like Katniss? More like Emma Gonzalez and Anthony Borges and Yolanda King?
Until the morning of the walkout I flip-flopped on whether to join in, justifying each side to myself over and over and over again. No matter what I told myself, I knew deep down that I would feel guilty if I stayed in my chair and let my inner Hermione fall to the wayside. The voices of my classmates said that the walkout wouldn’t solve anything, wouldn’t attract the attention of lawmakers if not a single reporter showed up. I didn’t care that they thought it wouldn’t do much; I knew doing something was better than doing nothing at all.
Suddenly it was Friday, and I was in my second period class – chorus – and only half focused on my sheet music as I watched the clock creep nearer to the ten a.m walkout. It was nine forty, then nine fifty, then nine fifty-five. My leg started to shake, and I slammed my binder down on my knees to hide it. I still didn’t know whether I would go or stay, and I busied myself stealing furtive glances around the room. My twenty five classmates were all clearly on edge waiting to see what would happen; everyone was exchanging looks, fidgeting, and awkwardly holding smiles on their faces with pursed lips. Only the teacher appeared happily oblivious, animatedly stressing the importance of marking the anacrusis on our papers. The clock ticked to ten o’clock. Then it clicked to ten o’ one, ten o’ two, and ten o’ three.
The girl in front of me stood up. She had been the most vocal in our class about the walkout for days, and I suppose we were waiting for her to make the first move all along.
“Ma’am, myself and some others would like to join the walkout to protest gun violence.”
The room was dead silent, and we suddenly remembered why we were all terrified of the chorus director. She fixed her student with a long, steely glare and stayed stock still, like a cobra waiting to strike. Then, in an icy, calculated voice, “Well, I won’t stop you.”
In front of me, the rebel adjusted her chair, picked up her jacket, and headed for the door. The girl next to her stood up too, and then a freshman on the other side of the room followed suite. A silent moment passed. Suddenly, I saw my hands brace themselves on the sides of my chair and pick myself up. I saw myself set down my papers, and saw my feet walk to the door, catching it before it swung closed. I saw a glimpse of my friend’s mouths hanging wide open. I had to jog a few steps to catch up with the other Hermiones, who turned around to see me and grinned, called out my name. One gave me a high five and told me that she would have never thought I, of all people, would have the guts to walk out of class. I told her I was the happiest I had been in my life and also completely terrified, maybe a bit dazed too. The hammering of my heart slowed down as the four of us went down the long hallway, and then out into the bright, crisp outside air.
We found maybe forty or fifty fellow students clustered around the flagpole at the front of the school, and I finally let out a breath. The president and vice-president of the SGA led us in a moment of silence for those lost to gun violence, and asked us to form a circle by holding hands. I grasped hands on one side with a super tall senior I’d seen around: his dyed-blond afro only added to his height, and I had to hold my hand up a little to even reach his. On my other side, I had the hand of a sophomore I didn’t know: a girl with a pair of hipster glasses who was shorter than I was. Then, people piped up from around the circle to say why they had chosen to walk out: a pretty, popular junior girl said that her older sister had experienced a school shooting firsthand while working as an assistant teacher, and it struck close to home for her because of it. A quiet boy we had to lean in to hear said that he had walked out to recognize people of color, who were both more likely to be affected by school shootings and received less media attention than their white counterparts when they had. Many simply said that they shouldn’t have to fear going to school each day, and they found it vital to take a stand in solidarity. Although it may have seemed inevitable for such a large crowd, nobody interrupted or contradicted each other; the whole thing was ten times more civilized than any discussion I’d had in a classroom.
At the end of the planned seventeen minutes – one minute for every person killed at Parkland, like the March walkout – we headed calmly back inside through one set of unlocked doors. I was proud that I had taken part, and I knew it would all be worth it for whatever consequences I might receive, but mostly I was proud that students were banding together at high schools everywhere. Every year in the United States, four million high schoolers turn eighteen, and congressmen who sleep with their NRA checks under their pillows should have four million more reasons to worry. Keep on registering, and keep on marching.