The phrase “a teachable moment” is used often enough to sound like a platitude, and as such should be regarded with suspicion, but in the case of student walkouts it’s a viable option and perhaps the best alternative. You could say a teachable moment is an unplanned opportunity, something a teacher can use.
Exasperated with the adult world’s inability to arrive at meaningful gun control in response to mass shootings, students across the nation have taken matters into their own hands. Last week, about 150 Platt High School students participated in a walkout, one week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. A national protest is set for March 14, in which students plan to leave class for 17 minutes in commemoration of the 17 people killed in the Florida school shooting.
The protests have been compared to those of the 1960s and ’70s. Having been around for both, my feeling is the current protest is at least as profound, and profoundly sad. Young people are protesting for their safety, their own protection, to a grown-up world that seems unwilling and incapable of helping them.
After years of frustration following mass shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, these protests appear to be having some influence. Businesses are distancing themselves from the National Rifle Association, and the president is at least talking about gun control.
Students have First Amendment freedoms, but schools also have the right to ensure education and to act on behalf of other students. So when students walk out, there’s a choice in how to respond.
Platt Principal Robert Montemurro provided a good example of how to take advantage of a teachable moment. He heard of the student walkout only on the morning on which it took place. His response was to join in and offer words of encouragement, and his comments to the Record-Journal were heartfelt: “They really feel for the other students down there,” he said. “It’s a situation that, as 17-year-olds, I can’t imagine how confused they are because as an adult and principal and a father, I still can’t put my head around it.”
The response of school superintendents, though more guarded, has also been supportive. Southington School Superintendent Tim Connellan wrote to parents following a meeting with police and school leaders: “Our goal in this instance will be to allow students to exercise their voice if they choose to do so and to engage in an activity in a safe environment in which no students will find themselves ‘getting in trouble’ for their participation.”
Wallingford School Supertinendent Sal Menzo also wrote to parents following similar meetings: “We want to implement ideas to support student voice and advocacy while being mindful that not everyone may have the same feeling or beliefs.”
Years ago, I wrote a story that involved interviewing people who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. To an extent that surprised me (if only because I hadn’t thought about it that much beforehand) many had been motivated to serve by their experience as children watching the attacks of 9-11. Many of the students speaking out today were in grade school when the shootings in Newtown took place.
“I feel that almost every one of the students in this country is fed up with the way our safety has been treated,” Angel Hart, a Platt sophomore, told the Record-Journal. “We are saying ‘enough is enough’ because we’ve lived through so much of it and if we want change we have to go out there and change it ourselves.”
Yes, it’s a teachable moment, and it’s going both ways. Young people are also giving a lesson, and it would do us well to sit up and pay attention.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.