The Kids Are Not Alright

By JULIAN GERSON

Julian Gerson protesting on the Cross Street Bridge at Wednesday’s protest.

We kids, the youth of America, those of us still figuring out who we are and what we want to do and whether or not we really do know anything after all, have more power than we could ever know. This is a realization I arrived at on the Cross Street Bridge, as I looked into the eyes of adults — many of them professors at the college — and saw fear and humility and pride, but certainly not a single answer.

No, it was we kids — planned by a few articulate and courageous 16- and 17-year-olds from Middlebury Union High — who had organized and led the Walkout Against Gun Violence, not because we were more Facebook adept or knew how to make better signs than the adults, but rather because we are burdened by the weight of innocence.

It is not we kids who have compromised our integrity by bending our will to NRA campaign donations, nor is it we who have stood aside complacently as these shootings have grown more frequent and more destructive. Yet when anyone sees their defenseless classmate shot, their body brutalized and their memory violated through systemic inaction and hollow, meaningless offers of thoughts and prayers, it is us. We have grown up in an America where toddlers are trained for active shooter drills, where kids halfway through puberty hear a loud sound in first period English and instinctively text their parents that they love them, where students have to stream out of their schools by the thousands, wiping the sleep from their eyes, to plead with the adults who make the decisions to change something so that they don’t have to worry about getting shot while they’re trying to figure out who to ask to prom. The urgent voices of David Hogg and Emma González and Theo Spackman-Wells cannot be silenced because they are loud and they are innocent and they are right. We are innocent because no one else is.

At 10 years old, I was a fifth grader who cared only about his dog and convincing his parents that he was responsible enough to scooter to school alone. It was also then that I got suspended from school for getting into a fight.  A friend of mine — or someone I thought was a friend — had come up to me at recess and pushed me, hard. A few minutes later, he came back and did it again. When I saw him circling back a third time, I walked up to him and told him in no uncertain terms that if he pushed me again, I would punch him in the face.

He pushed me, I punched him, and 10 minutes later — recess a distant memory — all I could think about was how urgently my principal needed to invest in more comfortable chairs. I cried as I was lectured about the principles of verbal de-escalation and pacifism. I sobbed even more when I was taken home, ashamed of my actions and embarrassed that I had disappointed my parents. But we didn’t go home — instead, my Mom took me to my favorite restaurant, where she bought me a burger and a massive slab of chocolate cake. She told me that I had acted exactly as I should have. “When someone is mistreating you,” a mother explained to a boy whose tears had turned his cake molten, “you have no choice but to stand up for yourself, even if that means placing yourself in a precarious, vulnerable situation. Otherwise, nothing will ever change.”

It was that brilliant lesson, that there is good trouble and there is bad trouble and, boy, good trouble is sometimes just absolutely necessary. This guided me last Wednesday morning as I helped lead a contingent of hundreds of Middlebury students, faculty, high schoolers and townspeople to the Cross Street Bridge. As we stood there in silence for 17 minutes, many among us intentionally derelict from class or work, the snow-enveloped quiet punctured only by the honking of supportive cars driving by. I was young when my mother had delivered her chocolate-coated wisdom that day and I was still young on that bridge, but for the first time, my youth did feel like an obstacle but rather a platform of immense power. This was good trouble.

Kids don’t typically get involved in the political process. Maybe it’s because a lot of us can’t vote (or don’t know how to), maybe it’s because video games and first kisses are more appealing than tort reform, but whatever the case, it’s contributed to a perception of American youth as apathetic and uninvolved. This criticism is certainly well-founded; we definitely should vote more (it is in our interest, after all).  I’m beginning to wonder, however, if the adults of America truly understood the sleeping animal they were prodding as they beseeched America’s youth to get more invested. This is not a small group — the census places the number of Americans between the ages of five and 24 at roughly 83 million — and it’s a group that is as exceptionally talented at harnessing crucial online mediums of communication as it is willing to bravely and boldly contest authority.

After all, if Parkland and the ensuing mass walkouts have proven anything, it’s that the young voices of America have as much of a capacity to resonate loudly and fiercely as they have an unparalleled ability to identify corruption and cowardice in our public servants (just look at Marco Rubio’s humiliation at the hands of Cameron Kasky). We’re fixed in our convictions as well, impossible to placate through phony gestures and empty promises. We certainly have our shortcomings — look no further than the typos in our tweets or the enthusiasm that can verge on aggression as we challenge our elected officials — but those shortcomings are strengths, for they serve as the clearest evidence of our undiluted passion and our inexperienced innocence.

There is little moderation in our policy demands — we have no re-election campaigns to run, no constituents to appease — and the result has been legislators and governors throughout the country, prodded by the thought of the extreme, willing to begin considering change. Since Parkland, there has been a surge of legislative debates over raising the minimum age to buy guns, the expansions of background checks, the banning of automatic weapons, and the closing of loopholes open to domestic abusers. What we lack in refinement, we make up for in resolve.

The push for gun control reform started long ago, led by principled adults and a select few kids often devastated by personal loss. Yet for a very long time, even after the horror of Newtown, nothing changed, with death and fear accepted as the norm. At Parkland, however, something shifted. For the first time, the kids who were forced to huddle in silent closets and locked classrooms for hours, wondering if the last thing they’d ever see was a dark muzzle emerging around a corner, refused to maintain that silence when they emerged into the light.

Something changed in the kids who survived, and as they spoke out, their stubborn activism refusing to evaporate, something clicked in thousands of other kids around the country. I am one of those kids. All of the students who walked out are those kids. For a long time, we’ve been quiet, hoping the adults would do their jobs and keep us safe while we learned how to ride our bikes and ask our crushes out. We aren’t naïve anymore. We know the impact our protests carry and the change our mobilization can effect. Not only can you count on us to stay involved, you can count on us to make our voices heard.

The kids are not all right. But we’re changing that.

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The Kids Are Not Alright