Zamir Brown made his way to the front of the school auditorium at the gentle urging of his teacher and classmate Dena Hill. “You got this,” Hill encouraged from the front row.
The students, mostly freshmen from Maureen Boland’s English classes at Philadelphia’s Parkway Center City Middle College, were taking turns reading their papers about the National School Walkout. On Wednesday, students from across the country will protest mass shootings like the Parkland, Fla., tragedy.
Of course the Philly teens were supportive of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who were devastated when a shooter walked into their school on Valentine’s Day and killed 17 of their classmates and teachers. How could they not be?
The pain was more than familiar to them, as was the loss. Not one student who spoke inside the school at 13th and Brandywine had been spared the impact of gun violence. One by one they talked of friends whose funerals were reminders of how growing old can never be taken for granted in some of the city’s neighborhoods, of fathers gunned down before their kids even learned how to say the word Dad. “My whole life I been afraid of the world around me,” wrote Simone Akridge, 15.
So they, better than most, knew how the Florida students felt.
It’s the attention the Florida students have gotten that felt unfamiliar and unjust when so little attention is paid to the gun violence that touches so many children in cities like Philadelphia.
Brown, 14, standing nervously in front of the room with a red bandanna tied around his head and his book bag still on his back, took a deep breath before starting. He explained that if he did walk out — and he wasn’t planning on it — he’d do it to bring attention to the black people who are shot in his city “every damn day.” Black young men like himself and his friend, who were shot while walking to a store when he was 9. He struggled a little when he shared that he had been grazed by a bullet, but that his friend, who survived, had been shot twice.
Nerves, sure. But the unease with which these students spoke was also rooted in complicated and bottled-up emotions that pitted their desire to stand in solidarity against gun violence with the knowledge that the daily slaughter in their neighborhoods is seen as normal, acceptable. Expected.
Their anger and frustration were evident as they described how long they’ve gone without being heard and seen. “I want the same thing that those kids want,” said Jordyn Williams, 15. “I’m not saying that those kids’ lives didn’t matter. I’m saying they aren’t the ones being treated like nothing.”
After I left, I found my own words cracking under the same weight as I considered their pain and trauma.
It broke my heart. But Boland, their teacher, said she’s noticed something that should make us hopeful.
Over the nearly two decades she has been a teacher, students often share their stories of gun violence. But this time she noticed something more: a search for solutions, and a realization that there is no one answer.
For many, it means walking out of school Wednesday, no matter their reservations or resentments, deciding that every voice against gun violence should be heard. “We shouldn’t watch kids in Florida fight for gun laws to be changed in their state while we witness from the shadows,” wrote Kareema Chisolm, 15.
After the students finished reading their essays, a few young women approached me. Hill, who had read her essay first and who had encouraged Brown and other classmates, spoke.
If the mass shooting hadn’t brought gun violence to the steps of the Florida school, she asked, would the Parkland teens be standing in solidarity with them over the violence they live with every day? It is a valid question I said I’d pose to the Parkland students as best as I could.
And then she had a question for me: If I were Hill and her classmates, what would I do?
I hesitated because I didn’t want them to think I was criticizing anyone’s decision not to walk out. However temporarily, I’ve opted out of calls to action when I thought the call wasn’t sincere or reciprocal, or when I was just sick and tired of going unheard.
But I told them that if I were in their shoes, I’d do it.
I would walk in solidarity with the Parkland students.
I would walk to call attention to the gun violence they live with that the world chooses not to see.
Activism is complicated. It is imperfect and infuriating. It is unequal and unfair. But still, I would walk.
Because despite all the talk these days about whether calls to action against sexism or racism or guns are a moment or a movement, a hashtag or history, sometimes it’s better to claim your space in someone else’s spotlight than to sit righteously in the dark.