The morning began early as the teachers gathered in the cold air on the sidewalk. Across from them grew a field of grain, waving a greenish-pink tinge in the early morning light as the sun peaked over the mountains to the east. They passed posters among themselves as the took their place on the fine line of concrete that marked the very edge of public road property and public school property.
Restricted by state law from striking, the teachers had gathered this way each morning for a week, holding up posters to protest and inform passerbys about the contract negotiations that were very much stalled. The traffic on the street increased as the hour grew closer to the first bell ringing that would signal to the teachers that their contracted work hours had begun, and therefore, the posters had to be shelved and protest ended. As some parents drove by to drop off their children for classes, some honked, whether in appreciation or disagreement. Others simply drove by, trying desperately to get this part of the morning chores done so they could get on with their own day.
The contracted hour grew near, and one teacher among the many began gathering the posters back up. Staff members holding tightly to their now cooled coffee mugs picked their way across the parking lot and back into their classrooms to begin the work of the day. In some ways, the protest action itself felt futile and hollow and toothless, but it was better than silently reporting to work, day after day, knowing that the contract would reflect yet another raise-less year.
In the classroom, this day began like all the others: bells, announcements, pledges of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, books opening, papers pulled from backpacks, and sleepy students. There were hints of a coming storm from the students: “Miss? Did you hear about the walk out?” “The student government kids are going to walk out this morning to support you teachers!”
I pushed these comments from my little freshmen aside. They were not student government kids, and there was no way I was allowing one of them to get up and just walk out of my classroom, not that I had any real plan for what I would do if one tried. We continued working on the lesson of the day. I had anticipated being able to finish the lesson easily by the end of the class period when, suddenly, a bell rang. Students began packing up and putting away materials while I gave an irritated look at my watch.
“Nope. No. Keep your stuff out and just stay where you are. That’s not the bell to release.”
Oh, the futility of those comments. Students glanced uneasily at each other while pulling their papers back out. We are all so well trained to react to bells. It’s akin to Pavlov’s dogs: bell rings and instead of salivating, teenagers begin shifting uncomfortably in chairs, unable to focus. Something was happening; somewhere their friends were outside waiting for them; the world was passing them by!
I firmly reiterated my statements. “We are not leaving. I don’t know what is happening, but until I hear an announcement asking me to release you, everyone is staying right here.”
The door opened to the hallway as other students began peeking in. Clearly, not every teacher had taken a look at the wall clock, and some students were wandering. Some students from my next class began walking in the door, but this time, many brought news:
“Miss! The walkout! The student government kids are sitting outside with posters!” So it had begun…
I’ve never been much of a rebel myself. I hold strong opinions, but I have always prided myself on being able to see the other side’s point and limitations. To put on their shoes and to walk around in them, as Atticus teaches Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. If I was more of an activist, perhaps that young teacher would have encouraged her freshmen to go out to the walkout, to join in. Instead, I reacted in my typically conservative manner. I instructed all of the kids walking into the classroom to stay inside the classroom and to not go back out to the protest.
What was I afraid of? Was it two thousand students who might collectively want to be heard, their hormones raging and their tempers volatile? A walk out is a peaceful demonstration, and it sounded like the students were engaging with their silent bodies and posters, not violently. But something that day told me to hang on to the kids and to not encourage their inner Martin Luther King’s, their Caesar Chavez’s to be practiced that day.
Another bell rang, but this time accompanied by an announcement from the office.
“Teachers, please keep your students in your classrooms.”
Not a problem, I thought. Happily, my freshmen were fresh enough to still be ordered to sit and stay, and they sat and stayed, while students continued to trickle in with news from the outside. Why ring the bells if you want the teachers to keep the kids in class, I thought to myself. Clearly, as so many students were out and wandering to their next classes, when that message hadn’t been received with the first bell, so many of my colleagues had just excused their students to what they thought was passing period. By the time of the announcement and the second bell, “Katie, bar the gate!” The kids were already out of class and wandering—there was no way to put the genie back into the bottle.
The actual time for class to end had passed with no further bells, so the room, now full with nearly two classes of 14-year olds was full of restless energy. They all knew things were unfolding, but blinded by a room with no windows to the hallway and well away from the quad where the purported walkout was happening, we were well insulated from the drama.
Another student walked into the room with an updated report, intending to go back out until I instructed him firmly that he would be staying in the room now. The report was not good, and at this point, I was not going to allow any child to go outside. Apparently, in an ill-conceived attempt to send the students back to class, the principal had first rung bells, thinking that would send the student protesters back to class. Instead, it sent a flood of students out to see the protest, and then join it, knowing they could avoid classes that day by just sitting outside claiming to protest.
In frustration, that same principal then decided that ripping up the posters made by the students and ordering the student government students back to class would end the action. In a school marked by low academic drive but also marked by incredible artistic talent, ripping up student work in front of the students has an incendiary effect. In this case, it was mistakenly lighting a fuse on an entire quad of potential firecrackers.
The noise outside the classroom grew. Loud voices began approaching the door and glass breaking echoed. The rumble grew…and then passed. As the sound began to fade, I opened the door to peek outside and to get the lay of the land. As I did, I saw more of my freshmen students from later classes toward the end of a large pack of students yelling and shouting as they progressed up the hallway. I grabbed two of the kids by the arm and yanked them into the room, locking my door behind them.
I had heard the phrase “mob mentality” before. I had dabbled with the idea of darkness in the human psyche since my senior year in high school when we read The Heart of Darkness, and the book had resonated with me heavily then. I had studied the adolescent brain, and I well knew how incredibly driven teenagers are by their peers. But there was a flash I saw in those two students I grabbed from the hallway. I could see it when they were marching with their peers—a black darkness, a blindness to consequences, a senseless anger, a loss of control. Mob mentality is real—I saw two Honors English 9 students, straight A students, engaged in violent behavior that erased all other redeeming parts of their personalities.
Once in the classroom and back amongst their peers who sat meekly in their desks having quiet conversations with others who were wandering about, their eyes returned to consciousness. The bodies relaxed, their shoulders un-tensed, their hands opened from the fists they had been in, and their voices lowered. They looked at me as if they had just come out of a coma, not recognizing where they were or how they had gotten there. One of them whispered at me, “thank you.”
We all stayed locked up in that little classroom, hearing the loud sounds passing again, up and down the hall. I repeated my action of grabbing a couple students in from the back of the pack. That day, I felt a little like the person in the Starfish parable: the story of the person who walks along the beach throwing starfish back in the sea. When someone reminds him of the futility of his act, he replies, “I made a difference for that one.” I saved those few I pulled in from themselves, from having to see, at such a young age, the capacity for evil that they had within themselves.
Eventually, the hall grew quiet, and the mob sounds from outside stopped passing through.
I have little recollection of how the rest of the day unfolded. I’m sure the lock down that was never formally announced was lifted. I’m sure we continued to move through the day from bell to bell, trying to teach half empty classes. But I do well remember the story that was told to me later in the day of what had eventually unfolded outside that protected little classroom full of nervous teens:
Apparently, the students had moved several times through the campus and past classrooms, breaking windows in many of them. (For this reason alone, I was grateful to have one of the only rooms on campus without a window—a fact that I had been disheartened by when I first was assigned the room.) Then, the leaders of the riot had led hundreds of students to walk up that same sidewalk teachers had stood on in the early morning light and off campus to continue the damage as they went. They turned over a police car en masse, and eventually ended up a half mile away from school at a convenience store where they caused some damage. I was able to tune in to CNN that night and watch my school, my students, rioting and walking up the street from aerial footage shot from a helicopter above the scene.
In the days that followed, there were many staff called up for having “incited a riot.” Because I was not privy personally to what happened, just what students told me had happened, I had to surmise from my colleagues and from what was said at meetings had supposedly unfolded. Apparently, the staff as a whole was being blamed for the walkout to begin with. Our protests in the cold morning air just off campus had inspired the student government students, some of the finest in the school, to join us and to lend power to our voices by standing with us. Were we at fault for that? Perhaps, but I don’t think there are many educators that would be ashamed to acknowledge that their actions had inspired fine students to find their own voices to speak for what they thought was right.
Then, many of my colleagues were cited for having dismissed their students at the first bell, which was clearly not the correct bell for class dismissal. Perhaps this was the thing I did right, but I’m not willing to fault those who released their kids. So often in the classroom, teachers get swept up by the activities unfolding that the time gets away from them—the bell is the signal of time in the school. It speaks with authority. If the bell rang, then class must be over. Often, by the time a teacher realizes a bell is in error, those ever so efficient students have already quickly exited the room.
Some of my colleagues were called to task for perhaps helping the student government kids organize and create the posters. Was this true? I know not for sure, but it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility, knowing the personalities of the staff and how many had embraced the morning demonstrations. I had stood among them, holding my poster quietly, but I was far from a ringleader. I’ll own this about myself: I am not a vociferous leader of the silenced voices. I would rather protest with my written words, with networking, outside of the maddening crowd. But I do know this: those teachers did not help students with an eye toward causing the violence our campus saw that day. They were trying to teach students how to conduct non-violent protest, a vital form of speech in our country.
Is there blame to be had? Of course. There aren’t stories of whole high schools running riot, literally, on the news every day. Something went terribly wrong that day and turned some really wonderful kids into an angry mob. But I don’t believe that the mob was borne from the planning of a non-violent protest. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that the mob emerged from the was that authority interacted with those non-violent protesters.
It is a lesson we must all learn from. Young voices may be young; their experience with personal expression of opinion may be undeveloped, but we must honor their opinions and try our best, as adults, to hear them. Their bodies are developed, adult bodies, capable of much physical power, and their emotions are volatile. When working with them, we need to understand that under that physical prowess are strong opinions and a desire to be respected by the adults around them, the adults they are are negotiating themselves into becoming.
The act of ripping up the expression of those opinions, the public denial of them as young adults and the relegating of them to small children who can simply be urged back to class by the ringing of a school bell is what caused the angry and overwhelming emotions of that day.
As educators, we must carefully consider how we help teenagers find their voice in a noisy society. We all should celebrate students who are civically engaged. But we must bear the responsibility for helping them find a way to express their opinions in effective, controlled ways, for their safety and for our own.
Because of my experiences on that day, I have long shied away from encouraging students to walk out of class. I have strong opinions about the ineffectiveness of it that I share openly with students. Namely, walk outs have a tendency of attracting many students who do not share or even understand the opinions they are tacitly supporting when they walk out of a classroom. Instead, they just know that they get to walk out of class and miss work for the day without penalty by pretending to hold such an opinion. And these are the students that the press will always identify and choose to interview, which makes the walk out look like a shallow action to avoid work for the day, weakening what could be meaningful protest.
Walk outs are also uncontrollable forces, as I personally experienced that day. People in large groups lose their individuality, the power to think for themselves, and begin acting as one group. Should that large group begin to engage in illegal or immoral activities, it is impossible for the young organizers of such walk outs to regain control. They may have begun the action with good intentions, but it can easily spiral out of their control and into some very dangerous places for all involved.
I have experienced a number of different student walk outs in my years since the riot. They have not ended as dramatically, and most have done little other than be splashed across the local evening news. Most recently, I worked with a student who was organizing a walk out with a group that was planning a larger one across the entire city, and I told her the story of this CNN-worthy riot. We talked a lot about measures the organizers were taking to ensure that the walk out did not spiral out of control and accomplished what they hoped it would. She took the story back to the organizers, and they made some plans.
And that particular walk out went off without a hitch. Students gathered peacefully as school police monitored. Students were allowed their expression and only those who understood what the protest was about (in this case: the repeal of DACA) were encouraged to participate. The principal asked teachers to allow students who stood up to walk out to leave without confrontation. The press showed up, and the students had organized statements and planned chants, so every student knew what he or she was doing. And the teachers were informed, so they could tell those walking out that there would be natural penalties (no make up for work missed), but that without penalty, non-violent protest loses meaning and power.
I like to think my district and my administration learned from that riot so many years ago. I like to think that organizers have learned how to carry off protest with young people in a way that helps them focus their energy in a positive direction. I know for a fact that I’ve learned a lot from both protests: the ugly and the beautiful.
It is beautiful to see teens find their voice about things happening in their community. It is beautiful to see them care enough about those things to accept a penalty in order to speak out against perceived injustice. This is the value of true education: to teach students how to speak with power and empathy and control, not with violence and anger and hatred.