Fifth-graders ask for, demonstrate, leadership

Tonight I heard three students step in front of a city council meeting to talk about school shootings, their own activism, and recommended policy responses.

Fifth-grade students.

I heard a child of I suppose 10 or 11 say “Since I’ve been in kindergarten I’ve been hearing about the slaughter of children in our schools.”

“We care,” one said. “We care that we are safe.” This statement that no one should need explained nonetheless, obviously, feeling necessary for them to point out because “we have a problem and our elected officials are afraid to admit it.”

These were serious, hardened ambassadors.

They recounted three months of effort to organize a walk-out protest at their school, including two attempts that failed. These fifth-grade students were not deterred by that.

Nor were they present simply to call for grown-ups to do something, to show leadership. They seemed entirely cognizant of the well established failure of this to happen, and focused not even so much upon changing the world as on basic survival.

They wanted bulletproof entrances, and they wanted full participation in active-shooter drills, not just for their teachers but for themselves.


I don’t care if they were coached by adults beforehand. I don’t think they were doing any of this for someone else besides themselves and their peers. They not only gave a prepared statement but answered a number of questions.

This seemed like it’s very real to them and matters to them and something on which they want to learn, for their purposes not anyone else’s.

I’m reminded, in a way, of a scene from the CGI film Final Fantasy, which was about a future civilization largely reengineered around a constant existential threat. Even in this context, adult character Aki Ross was moved to tears recounting a small child, mortally hurt, who declared herself “ready to die.” I feel a bit like Ross.

Only in fifth grade and yet ready to respond, to threats to their lives, with stoicism and organized action.

This article from last year criticizing active-shooter drills mainly because they don’t do enough good to justify upsetting children seems woefully out of touch. Some children, at any rate, seem well beyond being upset. Beyond childhood, in fact.

It has become customary for adults to talk about how inspired we are by student leadership and activism, and I don’t disagree. Maybe the generation in school, right now, will go on to be the leaders of maturity and engagement that are probably the only possible chance of managing the political, ecological and other shambles they’re going to inherit. One can’t help hoping so, though I worry that we shouldn’t assume.

Meanwhile, though, at the moment I don’t feel inspired. I just feel sad, and ashamed.

Childhoods being stolen is not new, I realize. But as a phenomenon it ought to be in retreat, not expanding.

This is awful.

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