Maureen Boland worried when she started seeing the nasty comments piling up under the column that I wrote about her Philadelphia students as the National School Walkout approached.
If you've ever visited the dumpster fire that is a news site's comments section, you can imagine how pleasant that was.
Unidentified commenters accused the Parkway Center City Middle College students of trying to take attention away from the Parkland, Fla., survivors of a Valentine's Day mass shooting that left 17 of their classmates and teachers dead.
The Philly teens had been exploited, the commenters insisted, by their teacher — or, more likely, me, a writer one commenter described as "wearing others' grief like costume jewelry." Burn.
Anonymous trolls blasted the Parkway students for "pulling the race card" when they shared that, as much as they support and relate to the trauma that the Florida teens have experienced, they wonder why the gun violence they live with doesn't get the same attention.
In case anyone is still confused, these students aren't making it about race. It is about race.
Boland's worry subsided a bit when she saw some familiar names pop up among the comments: Like the Parkland teenagers who called out their critics on social media, Parkway students took on their philly.com haters.
"We are dying and no one has done anything," Nicholas McLaurin told a portrait-of-courage commenter who hid behind a pseudonym.
Why, his classmate Dena Hill wondered, were the commenters purposely twisting their words?
How could they get it all so wrong?
Did they even read the column? many of the students asked, echoing a question I ask myself each day. (If we really want to make America great again, we should skip building a wall and instead build reading comprehension.)
Taking a cue from her students, Boland wrote a response of her own, but by then I had already asked that the comments be taken down. I don't regret having asked — we should be pulling hateful speech down faster — but I wished more people got to read what she wrote.
It spoke to the kind of support we need to give children who are doing the work that adults didn't.
In her open letter, Boland acknowledged that some of the vitriol that grown men and women directed at the 14- and 15-year-old students in the comment section might be shocking, but she encouraged them to stand strong.
"Remember — they did it to Parkland kids, too," Boland wrote. "They always do it to people who stand up."
She reminded them that for every hater who refuses to acknowledge their truth, there are more who know that for all the talk of protecting children, we have failed them in our schools and on our streets.
"There are many people who saw you stand with Parkland students today," Boland wrote, referring to the National School Walkout many of the students participated in. "I saw your deep compassion for those victims. I saw your solidarity. I see you yearning for acknowledgment."
She told them to remember the strength they saw in the student leaders in Parkland, the strength that inspired them to speak so honestly and publicly about their own trauma — and stay focused.
"Protect yourselves so you can move forward and make this city and country better," she wrote.
She wisely suggested that they leave the comment section "and find a kinder, safer place."
There will be some who will read that line and rush back to the comment section to deliberately twist its meaning, to mock it as a "snowflake" teacher encouraging her "snowflake" students to find a liberal hidey-hole.
Now I'm calling BS. What these kids are doing, in Parkland and Parkway, and across this nation is anything but safe. It's bold and brave and the very thing that adults should have done, except, as many adults prove on a daily basis, courage is often the first casualty of adulting — especially when there is a mortgage to pay or power or NRA funding to lose.
Before Boland's students made the decision to speak publicly about the National School Walkout this week, and about the gun violence and trauma they live with, they would often share their stories with one another. In the safety of their classrooms, they would tell their stories. And then they would bear witness as their friends and classmates told theirs.
There would be tears, and a shared acknowledgment of pain and loss that the world around them chose to ignore.
Now they want to be heard, and seen, and believed. They know the risks of speaking out.