On March 14th, my child broke the rules. And I was proud. But not because I’m a lenient parent. Words like “high expectations,” “best behavior,” and “academic excellence” are a regular part of our vocabulary, whether my children like them or not. I want my sons to have a moral compass that points them towards justice. And March 14th was the day of nationwide school walk outs to push for stronger gun control laws in response to the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School four weeks earlier.
Leading up to March 14th, I did not weigh in on whether my 6th grader should participate in the Student Walkout against gun violence. At his school, it was each student’s choice to leave class. And the principal made it clear to the school community that walking out was not protected under their First Amendment right to free speech, so this “cutting” would be considered an act of Civil Disobedience.
My son and many of his schoolmates were angry that they would be asked to write a paper to reflect upon their reasons for participating in the protest. But I’m glad the principal explained that some choices have repercussions. I want my children to have more than just the ability to follow an excited crowd, a passionate leader, or obey the rules that have been handed down to them.
I love to read about the non-violent protestors from our past.
Those that used their pens – Tom Paine, Henry David Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Who used their voices – John Adams, Frederick Douglas, and Sojourner Truth. And those who made the ultimate sacrifice and put their own bodies in harm’s way like Harriet Tubman, Alice Paul, Gandhi, and Dr. King. Some did all three in the time-honored traditions of protest. They were labeled rebels and outlaws, but no one disputes their moral compass pointing towards justice. They chose to participate in actions that led toward the greater good knowing there would be blowback.
But my boy still hadn’t decided if he wanted to “get in trouble” for standing up for what he believed.
He said it wasn’t fair for the school to punish him, and I assured him that there would be many times in life when standing up for something you know is important will, in fact, get you into trouble. I added that if I’m unsure of what to do, I ask myself, “In five years, will I be glad or have regrets?”
More than anything, I wanted my son to make a choice based on his own sense of right and wrong. Even if it meant breaking the rules.
On the morning of the 14th at 9:55 a.m., I walked to the quad next to the bus circle. I have no idea what to expect. My over-sized wristwatch reads 10:00 a.m. as the quiet walk of students began towards the front of the school. Parents, counselors, administrators, aides, and a couple of teachers held a safe space around them. These extraordinary young people stood and sat, without words, in a large circle. Each young person chose for themselves whether dissent, with its possible consequences, is worth following their moral compass.
Among them – my young man.
He may have been my little boy when he left my car that morning, but this decision seems to have transformed him. He looks across the circle, meeting eyes with me and he smiles. Then he flashes the “I love you” sign with his right hand close to his heart. On this cold and rainy day, the wind and precipitation hold and the clouds part. The sun warms my back as I stand to face 122 middle schoolers as tears roll down my cheeks.
17 minutes is a very long time for anyone to be motionless and speechless (ask any teacher). But these wonderful children chose to leave their classrooms in an act of “Civil Disobedience,” showing all of us it’s not enough to simply raise a child that follows the rules and respects authority. They must be empowered to change the status quo when it violates the common good.
After 17 minutes, a student looks at her watch, turns, and quietly walks away. The others follow. They don’t cheer, laugh, or jostle one another. They simply return from whence they came in the same spirit of reverence in which they arrived. Soon all that remains in front of the school are budding trees, an increasingly cloudy sky, crisp wind, a few raindrops, and the adults. We tighten the circle, weeping openly and handing out hugs. We say very little as the power of those long minutes wash over us like a baptism of conscience.
What if it happened at our school?
What if 17 of the school children we see every day were killed? I realized that was precisely what our students had long been thinking. I walked back to my classroom, pondering the moral compass that every child has embedded in their soul. It’s our most important job to encourage them to follow it, even when it means breaking the rules. There have been many hard days and sad days this school year. But this was not one of them. This was a very fine day.