On Saturday, I joined several friends and almost three hundred strangers in the local March for Our Lives. It was a quiet event, a somber one. We marched from one place to another, holding signs, occasionally talking, waving to cars that honked support, sometimes wiping away tears. It was a good event, a cathartic one.
I was fourteen when Columbine happened, just on the cusp of heading to high school. I remember watching my mom watch the news. I remember seeing terrified faces on the television. I remember becoming afraid that high school was the place you went and got shot.
And then I remember going to high school and being fine. But over the years, that hasn’t been the case for many, many students—whether they’re in grade school, high school, or college. They go to school and they are not safe. They go to church or to the mall or to a friend’s house and are not safe. The proliferation of guns in this country is a problem, and it’s one we need to address urgently.
I am humbled and amazed and a bit shameful as I watch these students who are now leading the charge for gun reform—those from Parkland, those from Chicago, those from every corner of this country demanding better protection from guns. They are doing the work that should have been done long ago. As my mom and I have visited about events since the Parkland shooting, we’ve talked also about how the generations have addressed this violence, or, rather, how they haven’t. I think my generation, those of us who were in school when Columbine happened, were in shock. How did this happen? Why would it happen? And then, why does this keep happening? But this generation, the generation that’s had lockdown drills since grade school (something I never had to do), they’re tired of it. They know that the reason it’s happening is that we have an abundance of guns in this country and that we need to do something about it. They know that gun violence is a larger problem than school shootings: that it affects people of color, particularly women of color, far more than any other group; that it includes suicide as well as homicide; that it is not a hopeless problem that has no solutions.
I have been astounded by the willingness of certain people to shift the blame or the focus of the conversation these Parkland kids—these everywhere kids—are starting. Apparently we don’t need to address gun violence at all. Learn CPR, they’ve been told by a washed-up, irrelevant politician. Be nice to kids who display destructive and abusive behavior and you won’t get shot, the #walkup movement would have us believe. By allowing only clear backpacks we can better protect our kids (and, you know, invade their privacy), some would say. And while we’re at it, let’s arm teachers so we have more guns in schools rather than fewer, the president suggests. I’m sure gun manufacturers aren’t unhappy with that suggestion. A whole new crop of buyers!
But these kids? They’re having none of it. And they shouldn’t.
The other element that so strikes me about the way that the Parkland teenagers in particular are leading this movement is the way they have let us into their grieving. They are brand new to this grief, this pain, this long, long journey to healing. I worry about their hearts and heads as they demand better of us, but I am also grateful that they aren’t going away. It is so tempting to push grief away, to save it for private moments when one can cry or scream or wail in peace. These kids aren’t doing that. For too long I think our approach to gun violence—in whatever form it takes—has been to shrug our shoulders and pretend that the real bullets don’t leave metaphorical ones that rip through the hearts of anyone affected by a shooting. But watch a speech by Emma Gonzalez and you see just how real this grieving is. This is not a grief to shrug our shoulders at and move along. This is a grief that makes us uncomfortable, and it damn well should. I hope and pray that the kids are getting an abundance of support from family, friends, and counselors. They need it. But I also hope and pray that they continue to be brave enough to share this grief, to let us see the aftereffects that we have ignored as a society for way too long.
I have a cousin who just turned fourteen. In the fall, she will be starting high school. I hope to God she’s not writing a post like this in twenty years.