Walking out with respect

20190325_174235.jpgThe New Zealand mosque shooting had particular resonance for my students.  My school is for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners and many of our students are Muslim.  The day after the shooting, a girl who is not Muslim came in with a poster she had made on her own stating “We stand with our Muslim neighbors.” It was the first of several events last week that showed me a new level of leadership among my students.

Our school is housed in a building with five other public high schools.  Students from one of the others schools decided to organize a student walkout on Friday in response to the New Zealand shooting to protest hate crimes, gun violence, and show support for the victims.  It would be peaceful, no longer than 40 minutes, and take place on the athletic field.  Students from our campus had participated in last year’s walkout around the Parkland school shooting, and it had been safe and organized.  All seemed fine.

On Tuesday, my assistant principal called me: “Julie, did you know that our students were planning on walking out tomorrow– Wednesday, not Friday? Apparently there’s a big thing on social media.  Aden* just told me.”  Aden is an active member of our student government.

Uh— no.  I hadn’t known that.  I had not informed my teachers or organized safety.  I pictured 300 students running out of our school onto the street with no plan in place.  Chaos.

It was a tough position: school staff cannot organize student walkouts, but we must provide safety and support if they happen.  What to do?

I found Aden and explained why having the walkout on Wednesday would be problematic.  Aden and some other student leaders discussed the issue, and decided it made more sense to do the walkout with the other schools on Friday.  He and two classmates, Maria and Yocasta who had made the poster, created a plan to go around and tell all students what the walkout was Friday, not Wednesday.  They would also explain what the walkout was about.

The first time Aden, Maria, and Yocasta spoke to a group of students, I listened in.  Aden  said everything I expected– the reason for the walkout, the time.  Yocasta added that students could make speeches or posters.

And then Aden added something I hadn’t expected: “If you want to join us in protesting hate crimes, please do.  But don’t just go to the walkout to cut class or have fun.  Doing that would be disrespectful to the victims.”

The students listening looked very serious.

I was reminded, yet again, of how powerful it is when students hold other students to high standards of conduct.  I had never told Aden to say what he said.  It had truly come from his heart.

The day of the walkout, I was touched by how many of our students had prepared signs and how they weathered through the cold, cloudy afternoon to listen to speeches. Yes, some students walked out without the serious intention to participate, to get out of class– they’re kids.  But most walked out wanting to express themselves on on an issue that was important them, and their passion was inspiring.

*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.  

Photo credit: Julie Nariman

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