Parenting in an Activist High School

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High school students in Parkland, Florida have showed us that our teenagers can be brave and effective when mobilized around a cause. Their work is breathtaking to read about. My children’s high school in New Jersey also made national news recently for related reasons. Last year around the same time the high school was also in the national news. Both times students themselves created the story—using their emerging-activist voices to protest a school policy. This year it is about both a teacher who was suspended for reasons we don’t fully know, but that appear to center on things said during a class discussion about school safety, and also underlying security concerns that our students find unacceptable in the wake of the Parkland and other school shootings.

In the last week of February, students planned and executed two school walkouts, and flooded school superintendent and school board meetings. They appeared on local and national news. After initially threatening the students with suspension and the rescission of their ability to participate in graduation, the senior class trip, and the prom, the school principal wrote a humble retraction letter and the school board began work on a student-activism policy.

Just as Dahlia Lithwick noted about the education system in Parkland, students in our school system enjoy an education that affords them opportunities to learn how to speak in public. They are also taught to speak out on issues they care about, in effect, making them activists-in-training. My kids’ —two teenage daughters—activism generally centers on inclusivity because their activities, volunteer hours, and internships bring them in direct contact with kids who come from different backgrounds and perspectives. They have also participated in national marches for women and for science. Each daughter has addressed our hard-working school board on more than one occasion, talking about issues they care about, ranging from the health issues related to idling cars in school parking lots to the lack of women’s history or gender studies in the high school curriculum.

In my town, the residents agree that schools should be a laboratory for learning to become fully-empowered citizens. That helps explain the regular standing-room-only school board meetings we have been seeing that are filled with as many students as parents. But all of this has also led to some weird calculations that the students have had to make concerning how being an activist can affect their regular studies and their relationships with their peers.

As their parent and a lawyer, I have given a lot of advice and encouragement to my daughters about making their voices heard as they have grown up. My late father’s greatest joys in his law practice came from his ACLU and other civil rights work, and I am delighted that my daughters are following suit. That said, I feel conflicted in advising as a parent because it’s all so new. I believe the questions my daughters ask me are telling of the pressures teens face when trying to balance their desires to change the world with the more mundane aspects of actually living in the world.

The first concerns my activist daughters have are the pragmatic. What should she do, one daughter has asked me, when the school walkouts directly conflict with scheduled exams? That’s not in the abstract—it’s come up both times the students scheduled walkouts at her school. Last spring, the same issue arose in a different context: should she attend the school board meeting to join the room packed with people there to address an issue she also cared about very deeply, or should she stay home per teacher direction, to study for the Advanced Placement exam scheduled that week? She doesn’t really expect teachers to reschedule exams for walk-outs, so she is trying to find her own equilibrium between her social-moral and education principles. I support her, but it’s nothing my parents had to face when I was in high school during the relatively calm 1980’s.

The second set of concerns likewise cause me to forge new parenting ground. My younger daughter is also trying to decide what to do about her long-held social agenda when other topics are dominating the news. Every March, since her 9th grade year, she has visited the school principal to ask why the high school does nothing official for Women’s History Month. She’s also visited the school board to talk about the lack of attention spent on women’s studies. Our high schools’ curricular offerings are robust, so this omission really doesn’t make a lot of sense, and she has swayed some members of the school board—but they don’t control curriculum as much as we all might like to think.

My daughter knows that nothing will change before she graduates but she wants later groups of students to have the benefit of her voice. So, until the high school was in the news recently, she was planning to make another annual March trip to the principal’s office to highlight the lack of attention paid to women’s history. So far, the most that’s happened for Women’s History Month has been a tweet from the faculty member overseeing extracurricular activities in the school and one morning announcement this week—right after she sent an email to the principal asking about precisely that. After that: nothing. The administration went back to focusing on student safety issues, apparently satisfied that it had checked the box for Women’s History Month with four minutes of air time. She’s hesitating about raising the issue beyond an email, worried that she may be seen as attempting to distract the principal from the debates surrounding security and the suspended teacher. She actually feels sidelined about her issues of gender-sidelining in the curriculum.

She’s not wrong to hesitate and worry about the backlash that can come from other activist students. The same issues that have plagued some of the women’s marches happen at the junior level as well. Last year, during a controversy about the school musical, my older daughter, a recent high school graduate, took a position contrary to that of her thespian friends, and found herself pilloried for doing so. The musical in debate contains racial epithets that some students in the production wanted removed, and the majority of others wanted left in. An initial decision to remove the word was later reversed. My daughter saw it as an issue of race and dignity. Others saw it as an issue of art censorship. In the wake of that controversy, our school board faced a very large group of upset students, the town’s African American Civic Association, and officers of the local NAACP chapter.

My daughter sent her father to the school board meeting to read into the record a letter she wrote from college. She had vetted the topic and tone of the letter with multiple people including an education professor at her college to make sure it was respectful in tone. Nevertheless, after her father read it into the record, her social media swelled with comments negative enough to cause my brother across the country to call my daughter in concern. These comments came from classmates who normally have her same political leanings.

To be honest, our parental advising on that one was a bit easier. We supported all of the high school students for standing up to be heard, and laid the blame with the director for creating the problem in the first place. His refusal to remove a racist epithet was particularly galling to us because he had modified a different musical two years earlier when he changed the costumes and accents of comic-relief characters from being racially stereotyping to being merely weirdly and out-of-context cowboy outfits. However, despite it being an easier call for me, it was still a difficult situation for my daughter. The lessons she learned about hypocrisy in people she once respected have been hard to watch as a mother and as an educator myself. She’s all but written off the entire high school as a result of that ugliness.

As a parent to young, socially-aware teens, I feel obligated to help steer them through the morass of being an activist before one is truly an adult. Teenagers who want to get involved with politics or social issues face unique challenges because their lives are not truly their own yet. We should remember these struggles as we watch the Parkland students, and students across the country, protest and speak out for change on issues they are passionate about. They have accomplished so much despite the barriers they face. Their parents should be very proud of them.

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