Op-ed: A shift in strategy to silence guns
Editor’s note: The author announced earlier this year that she would walk out of her job as a Darien High School teacher April 20, a national day of action against gun violence, unless Congress took steps to to shield students.
The day after first-graders, teachers and administrators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, I had to return to Darien High School and face my kids. (Like most teachers, I refer to my students as my kids. We feel responsible not just for their education, but for their emotional and physical well-being.) I couldn’t tell my kids they were safe that day, because teenagers know when you are lying. All I could think to do was answer their questions and remind them we must all reach out to those students who feel isolated, as if that were enough.
I continued to face my kids in the aftermath of every mass shooting: Charleston; Washington, D.C.; Orlando, Florida; Dallas; Las Vegas; and Sutherland Springs, Texas. I grew more frustrated. I was angry at Congress for refusing to change the laws, but more importantly, I felt suffocated by my own inaction.
After the latest shooting, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the person I was most angry with was myself. How was it that I had done nothing actionable? How could I continue to watch the nightly news and do nothing? So I decided to give Congress an ultimatum and put my job on the line.
Since that day in February, I have become an activist. I joined Moms Demand Action; I attended a town hall with U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy in Greenwich; I called representatives in Congress and wrote letters to them explaining I wanted them to pass common-sense gun laws; I marched for my kids in New York City, along with other teachers; I signed petitions that called for common-sense gun laws; I created a Twitter account and started following Everytown for Gun Safety and the Parkland students; I found ways to shop more at Dick’s Sporting Goods after they stopped selling assault style weapons; and I made sure none of my retirement funds contain gun stocks.
I’ve never considered myself an activist, but I’ve taught about them for 12 years — people such as Alice Paul, Mother Jones, Ron Kovic, and others who worked hard to bring this country closer to its ideals. I’ve always admired them, but I don’t think I truly appreciated the courage required for the actions they took. They were ordinary Americans who believed so strongly in the stances they held, and felt such a responsibility to their fellow citizens, that they selflessly put everything on the line. I now understand it is no coincidence Alice Paul and Ron Kovic never got married or had children. Mother Jones only became an activist after her husband and four children died of a yellow fever epidemic. This was one of their sacrifices. I, on the other hand, have a family, and quickly realized my responsibility to them meant that inviting publicity and the media would have consequences I could not control.
What surprised me over the past few months is how many students, parents, and former students have reached out to lend their support and share their dismay with our country’s lack of action on gun safety. Many of the parents I spoke with had great ideas for how I could be most effective. One mom explained that if I continued to teach at DHS, I still had two months during the summer to effect change. Another suggested advising students who want to be activists. We talked about voter registration drives and the most effective ways to contact politicians. Still determined to take action against gun violence, I began to reconsider the most effective way for me to be an activist and help make common-sense gun laws a national reality.
My students have so many questions. I sometimes have to cajole students into asking questions during class and regularly plan lessons to spark their curiosity, but here they are, enthusiastic and interested. This is real learning: “Why doesn’t Congress do anything?” “Who is up for re-election in November?” “What are bump stocks?” “Wait — why are those legal?” “How should I get in touch with other students who care about this issue?”
One day, a student approached me after class and asked what my goal was. I said that my primary goal was to protect my kids. She replied: “How can you continue to protect us if you walk out and don’t come back?” After she left, I wondered if I had to give up the job that I love — was that the most effective way forward?
A few weeks ago, a former student reminded me of a lesson where students were asked to grapple with the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. After they presented their evidence and argued about the best way forward, they were dismayed to learn about the decisions made byer adults. One student wrote: “That was the first time I realized that the people who govern us aren’t always above us.” The voices of teenagers deserve to be heard just as much as ours. Over the past few weeks, I have heard adults say that the voices of teens don’t matter, one even going so far as to say they are not citizens. It can be uncomfortable for adults when teens point out our flaws. But we should take a hard look inward rather than shutting down their voices.
So I will continue to teach at DHS and fight alongside my students to do what I have always tried to do as their teacher: give them the tools they need to have their voices heard.
Stamford resident Jennifer Ladd teaches history at Darien High School.