To the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,
I will begin with the deepest of condolences. On Feb. 14, 2018, not only were your school and your classmates attacked, but so was your future. We cannot comprehend what you are going through, nor can we wrap our minds around what you’ve done in the long days that followed; only the hundreds of Americans who have suffered violent attacks like yours can begin to understand.
I do not write to you as a pundit, a partisan or even as an activist, despite normally being those things. I write to you as a student, a young “kid” like yourself. It would be foolish for me to pretend I wasn’t in my teenage years so recently or that I have ascended to some higher place in society; our fates are tied together as one generation until the end of our days.
An opportunity has been thrust upon you. You did not choose to suffer this attack, but some of you did choose to take a stand. Gone are the days, apparently, where teenagers are rewarded for being civically involved — just as the clamor of “not the right time to talk” follows every school shooting, there have come people peddling the fear that the most vocal of your classmates are scripted actors brainwashed by forces unknown.
You know the truth. You are free-thinking individuals who have a story to tell. And I don’t doubt you’ve read books, studied political topics and had teachers who have kept you honest about how to research and formulate arguments. You aren’t brainwashed, uninformed or reading from a script. You are speaking your truth. And that’s why you’re entitled to capture this moment: Your truth is part of the American experience, an experience where violence through loosely-regulated guns is the norm.
Former President Obama tweeted Thursday about those of you organizing marches and protests, speaking as a man of activism in the 70s: “We’ve been waiting for you.” The complicated thing is, so have we. Our generation (and those older than us) has been organizing for years. But no group in my memory has arrived so suddenly and so intensely, with such decisiveness as to begin toppling an interest group that many have pointed to for years as an obstacle to change.
And yet you are the youngest of us; you are still a work in progress. You are in shock, you are in mourning, you are angry and you have lost your homes as you know it. Your lives have changed forever. On top of that, you have to grapple with the national media’s attention. It does not matter whether you wanted to be well-known before this horrific event, many of your names are now recognizable across the nation.
Those blinded by partisanship, age or fake news might point out that I’ve not defended nor qualified the actual merits of gun control here, but they would be missing the point behind my solidarity: Young people participating in the political process is the cornerstone of American democracy. Regardless of your views, your role in this debate in and of itself has the potential to be seen as a cultural turning point for our generation. Dying is the myth of the apathetic, sheltered young people of the 21st century. It has nothing to do with “how” or “what” young people are thinking—it’s about young people being heard.
Not convinced? Even President Donald Trump is talking gun control. Some of us don’t think these measures are comprehensive enough. But whatever the decision, a conversation has truly begun, and the NRA’s once-inscrutable influence is starting to be sidelined in favor of public debate.
That’s you. That’s us.
Some suggest you are subject to exploitation for the political gain of forces in the media. But that assumes you are absolved of free choice in the matter—why are you not the person in power, using the media to state your truth? Is that not what the media is for? Sure, your newfound popularity will come with the risk of being co-opted and used. That is true for any of us who step into the public sphere of debate, young and old. But thankfully, we have grown up in a time where we can define ourselves in the way we choose on social media. Many of your accounts display not just your uncompromising resolve, but also your critical thinking.
You are a critical part of this conversation. Don’t let people get away with saying you’re vapid, self-absorbed children reading narratives off your phones and television scripts. We always have more to learn, but that doesn’t mean we have less to say. There’s nothing more fearsome in democracy than kids who know what they’re talking about.
One more thing: Those of us who support you ought to support your humanity. Smile when you feel like smiling and cry when you feel like crying. Speak out when something needs to be said but fight for your right to privacy. People will not understand it and make stories instead, but it’s not anyone’s job but yours to care about your own well-being. We ought to know that the sacrifices you are making by getting out there—or going back to school despite everything you’ve been through—come at a cost, and for that, we support you.
Don’t let up. We’ve got your back.
James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]