Last week there was a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Following the shooting, many of the survivors—high schoolers—have come together to voice their outrage at the current state of gun regulation in America, spearheading a movement to pass better gun control laws, with the hope of preventing what happened to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High from ever happening to another American school. You can find out more about their cause here.
Just days before the attack, I began editing and writing the afterword for a play I wrote last year, Tallahassee Ca. 2045. In the play, a group of high school students (heavily inspired by my own very politically conscious friends from high school) organize a protest for youth rights, to lower the minimum voting age. After a global catastrophe strikes, the nature of the protest changes, and it steadily grows out of control, ultimately collapsing with little more than token reforms made. And it takes place in Tallahassee, capital of Florida. Needless to say, I wish the MSD students much better luck than the characters in my play.
So for the past week, these students, and the way people are reacting to them, and the way some people are trying to discredit them, and whether or not they’ll succeed, and the fact that most of them can’t vote, and the general perception of teenagers, have all been on my mind. I’m in Spain right now, and I so wish that I could be in my hometown of Tallahassee to protest in front of the capitol, or even just in Iowa City, where I go to school. I would love to throw my support behind these kids by physically marching with them, but I can’t. What I can do is post this.
If you can’t tell already, it’s a strange post. It’s not really about gun control, but rather about why we should listen to the kids campaigning for better gun control right now, and general misconceptions about the apoliticality of kids. My main purpose here is to provide insight into my personal understanding of young people, particularly high schoolers, re: politics—which should be a pretty solid understanding, given that I’m 20. So, here we go. The following is a segment of the Tallahassee Ca. 2045 afterword, adapted slightly for this post.
You could say that I fell in with the right crowd in high school. “Fell in” because, for the most part, I met them first as friends of friends, not through any shared extracurricular interest or from any effort on my part to meet new people. And “right crowd” not because they were straight-laced t-totalers or anything, but because they were incredible kids (and are incredible people, for that matter.) They were kids who talked about politics during lunch. Kids who talked about, and argued about, Ferguson and Santa Barbara and Syria, about Common Core and Jackie Pons and gay marriage, about dress code and rape culture and climate change. Kids who made up jingles about socialism. Kids who discussed gender and sexuality without the tied tongues of adults nor the giggles of less mature kids. Kids who participated in Model UN and Peace Jam and GSA. Kids (a few of them at least) who once went to the principal to ask that he improve the school’s nearly non-existent sex-ed. Very liberal kids all, some of whom had liberal parents and some of whom had conservative parents. Kids who were vegetarian and vegan. Kids who acted, kids who ran, kids who wrote, kids who played instruments, kids who spoke Spanish, a kid who spoke Portuguese, a kid who spoke Russian, kids who knew Latin (and who could speak it, though it’s Latin, so they mostly didn’t.) I don’t mean to give the impression that we were all just pundits or politicians—we of course did talk about other things, about teachers and homework, tattoos and vacations, books and movies, food and theatre—but these are the relevant points for this afterword.
I don’t know how common or uncommon this group of kids was, if there are lots of people who had politically conscious friends in high school, but I can say for certain that I almost never see them portrayed in fiction. (I say “almost,” because one example I read last year is “Annabelle, Annie” by Lisa Goldstein—though it takes things from a very different, much grimmer angle, and is told from the point of view of one of the children’s mothers.) Certainly the activist college student is well-storied (Les Miserables comes to mind as a very dramatic example), but there is little of the politically conscious high schooler. I take this as a very personal offense—every writer seems to be willfully ignorant of the existence of my friends! The distinction between college student and high schooler may seem arbitrary to some people, but the distinction is precisely this: one group is disenfranchised, the other is not.
It isn’t just that my friends are not present in fiction, it’s that there’s a prevailing notion that young people are politically disengaged and apathetic, that they are this way because they are a) lazy, b) stupid, or c) a & b. They are too stupid, or too easily influenced by their parents, to even be allowed to vote. This is why it was, and remains, important to me to insist on the existence of my friends, and countless kids like them. Kids do care about politics. Kids are affected by politics. Kids are enraged by politics. In some ways, kids are more politically sophisticated, sensitive, and literate than any other group, because they are so receptive to new ideas, because they haven’t been around long enough for their ideology to start calcifying, as happens with so many adults. This is probably most prominent in language—in slurs (less used by kids) and neologisms (wielded adeptly by kids.) (Case in point, one of the MSD students [I think it’s Emma González] yelling “stop saying crazy” as NRA rep Dana Loesch continuously calls the shooter “nuts” “crazy” and “deranged.”)
My goal in writing these characters was not to assert that all young people are hyper-politically-conscious, or that all young people will be hyper-politically conscious in the future. My goal was to reflect a piece of reality, a piece of reality which has been very prominent in my life, and which has been scarcely portrayed in media.
Of course, in truth, people 18-24 are less likely to vote than any other age group (in the US anyway.) But this is a nasty bit of circular logic. People below 18 are told they are too stupid or feeble-minded to vote, or that they have too marginal a role in society to be allowed to vote. They are told this (implicitly, or perhaps explicitly) all their lives, and probably take along with this a heaping spoonful of bullshit stereotypes about their generation that older generations have cooked up. When they finally turn 18, is it any wonder that they would not feel a strong desire to vote? Is it any wonder that they would believe their voice inconsequential? And then, that very reluctance to vote is used to reinforce the idea that there should be a minimum age limit for voting, and that it should be high.
My friends stand outside of that cycle. The MSD students stand outside that cycle. Apparently, they did not believe the lie that they didn’t know anything about politics. That is what I find so sorely missing from representations of young people—the spark of defiance, of independence, of not waiting to be given permission to start shouting about injustice. That is why stories about politically active college students are not good enough for me—because college students have been told they are allowed to be smart, they are allowed to be politically engaged. Even in YA books, high schoolers are so often told that they are the chosen ones, that they are special, before they decide to save the world—and told so by a very clearly Right and Good authority figure, not just by a close friend or a great teacher. This is not the reality I’m familiar with. Yes, the world is in need of saving, yes the adults are failing the children, yes the young will have to save the world for themselves—that’s all the same—but no, no angel or dragon or prophecy is going to indicate them as the saviors.
There are, of course, other factors that affect whether or not a kid decides to start shouting. It’s worth noting that the kids from MSD live in Parkland, one of the wealthier parts of Broward county. In the words of MSD student Nikhita Nookola, “Parkland is literally made fun of for being the bougiest town in Broward. We have horse crossings.” It’s easier to be politically active when you’ve been going to a great school, when you’re in an environment where you feel valued as a person. It’s also possible to live in a poor community, and go to an under-funded school, that feels like the rest of the world has forgotten it existed, and still be politically active. I can’t speak about what factors nurtured the confidence to have a voice in my friends, much less in the students of MSD. For me, I know my parents, and the primary and middle school I went to, were critical in nurturing that desire to shout. I don’t want to ignore that. But there’s always a tremendous barrage of rhetoric, of implicit and explicit messages, pressuring anyone under 18 (or under 30, to some extent), to shut-up. Add to that the endless torrent of infantilization and gaslighting that women, or people of color, face their entire lives, and the defiant jeers of a teenage girl, of a black 10th-grader, become even more admirable. To ignore these people in fiction, to misrepresent them or forego representing them entirely, is to implicitly add to the downpour of condescension that threatens to extinguish the spark of independence in a child.
This is why I so wanted to write a story with characters in this situation, because I have a tremendous amount of empathy for them. Seriously, these Parkland kids have had me smiling and crying and laughing and doing all three at once this past week. It’s a tough situation. The double-burn of facing a calamity and being told your opinions are not needed in resolving the crisis. The bizarre feeling of being a civilian in a war zone, of sitting in a bunker murmuring and cracking jokes about the militias and rationings and aid convoys as bombs fall in the distance. Of course, young people are not the only disenfranchised group, and they are a special kind of disenfranchised in that they have built-in social mobility. They will all, inevitably and on time, be granted the right to vote, which cannot be said for prisoners serving life sentences (except in some states) or residents of Puerto Rico (in federal elections anyway.)
So for this play, the main political issues are ones which are especially tied up with young people, and the recognition of young people as people: climate change, and voting rights. (Of course, climate change also heavily effects Puerto Rico, so we arrive at the real reason I didn’t focus on legitimately disenfranchised people: because I just know more about Florida teens than I do about prisoners or Puerto Rico. I leave it to someone else to write San Juan ca. 2045.)
The idea of youth rights, for me, is wrapped up inextricably with environmental justice. If you believe the future generations are going to shit—better said, if you lie to yourself that the future generations are going to shit, are getting dumber and dumber, it’s a lot easier to not care about your contributions to the apocalypse they’ll suffer. If you don’t think of young people as people, or as members of society, or as citizens who are affected by politics, then you will not weigh them, their suffering, in the calculus of your actions. If you don’t think of teens and kids as fellows, then even if you do comprehend that your actions will have consequences, you can easily accept those consequences, because you’ll think, hey, I know I’m fucking the world, but I’m part of the world—I’m only doing this to myself. But you’re not, you’re doing it to our children and grandchildren.
That’s all for the afterword. The full afterword will be longer, with more stuff specifically about the play, but you won’t be able to read it until May 30. Hopefully this has served as a window into the thoughts of a 20-year-old on representations of teenagers in fiction, and in the public imagination. To close out I want to make two quick points.
First, it seems silly to say kids should be allowed to vote when the MSD students and thousands of students throughout Florida and throughout the US are showing just how much can be accomplished without even going to the ballots. However, again, I think allowing people under 18 to vote would send a very strong implicit message, making more kids feel like they are valued members of society who deserve to have a say about what is around them—and it would make politicians more accountable to young people. Although this post has only really touched on climate change and gun control, there are of course many other ways students are affected by elected officials, mainly through the educational system itself. The school superintendent of a district should be accountable to their students, for example.
And speaking of other issues, my second point. There is plenty of hate and condescension being directed at the MSD students, but there is also something bad happening among their supporters. Significantly less malignant, and less malicious, but still bad: acting like these kids are a fluke, or are unique, or are “adult.” Okay, some of them literally are adults in that they are 18, but my point is this—as I said, these kids are incredible, they are not like all kids, but they are neither unique nor new. It’s incredibly heartening to see them thrusting themselves onto the national stage, and I’m thrilled that so many people are taking them seriously. But I can’t escape the feeling that people will only pay attention to kids when they are literally shot at—the feeling that the teenage girl, who can’t get an abortion because she can’t get parental consent, will never be heard, nor the high school senior whose GPA is too low to get a scholarship, because he’s spent more time working than doing homework, nor the class of students whose teachers are verbally abusing them every day, nor the unborn children who will one day inherit the climate apocalypse. The feeling that people will decide that the MSD students are special, a once-in-a-lifetime thing, that truly children are precious innocent beings that should never have to deal with politics, and that only when they are shot at does it mean that we have failed them, otherwise everything’s peachy, our political choices don’t hurt anyone under eighteen, and rah-rah-rah students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, well done, what smart kids, I can’t wait to see what they do when they’ve become real humans, and for now we can all go back to thinking of children as non-citizens, beyond the realm of politics, things for us to protect, and sometimes use as excuses for our fear-mongering behavior, but never to listen to.
The MSD kids are wonderful, brave, intelligent people, but they are not one-of-a-kind—they are a surface expression.They are not a random pocket of outliers, they are the delegates of an incredibly capable, sensitive, and brilliant generation. I hope that going forward, we don’t return to the jokes about stupid ol’ Millennials and Gen Z-ers. (I hope especially that Millennials, when we get older, do not commit the same abuse that so many members of older generations have committed against us.) I hope that, whether better gun control laws are passed or not, we do not forget about these students. And I hope that, right now, we stop focusing on how surprising they are, and focus more on how ignorant we’ve been to be surprised in the first place.
About that surprise: For a while now I’ve suspected that the generations following mine will be better—that when I am forty, the teenagers of that day will be better, smarter, and kinder people than I. This belief strongly influenced the creation of the characters in Tallahassee ca. 2045—I wanted to write teenagers who were better than me, people that made me want to be better myself. It’s hard to say if the MSD students are of a different generation than mine—some of them are just a couple years younger than me, and the dividing line between Millennials and Gen Z differs depending on who you ask, and cohorts are bullshit anyway. I’m sure to anyone over thirty it seems laughable, me acting like there’s a big distinction between a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old. Regardless, these high schoolers have definitely made me want to be better, to do more, to have more hope that something can be done about gun control in America. And of course, I’m not surprised by this, I’m not surprised by how incredible they are, because I’ve always figured that the youth bracket will just get better and better over time. I’m just surprised to be proven right so quickly.
Some links to other stuff that isn’t just me blabbering/blubbering
March For Our Lives — Organization founded by survivors of the shooting, info on the planned “March For Our Lives” demonstration, links to donate.
The Eagle Eye — The MSD school paper.
“Here’s What It’s Like At the Headquarters of the Teens Working to Stop Mass Shootings” — Nice, insightful write-up by Remy Schmidt of BuzzFeed News.
“The case for allowing 16-year-olds to vote” — Article by Zachary Crockett of Vox, covers a lot of the reasons for youth suffrage, including the resulting increased turnout/civic engagement.
“Leon hosts meeting for Stoneman Douglas survivors” — Article by Ella Bevis for The Leon High Life, the school paper of my alma mater, of no interest to anyone but me, IDGAF putting it here anyway cause it made me so happy and tearful to see this.
“CNN town hall in wake of Parkland school shooting” — Video of town hall style meeting w/ an NRA rep, the Broward County Sheriff, 3 Florida congressmen, and many students, teachers, and parents from the Parkland community. I love these students. Their confidence and comfortability being themselves on a national stage is inspiring.
EDIT: further further reading
“Why It Hurts When the World Loves Everyone but Us” — Nice write-up on The Root by Janaya Kahn about previous, similar anti-gun violence movements lead by young black people, how they were ignored, how they’ve laid the groundwork for the Parkland students.