Teachers haven’t been waiting for young activists; we’ve been developing them

“We have been waiting for you,” President Obama recently told the newest wave of young people who are protesting gun violence, but, of course, it isn’t true. We teachers and professors have been working with them all along, helping them harness the power of their intellects and hearts to better understand and become good stewards of our troubled world. We teach classes about tolerance, the prison industrial complex, and the myths that perpetuate sexual violence. Together with our students we read queer memoirs, articles on women in science, and essays decrying environmental racism. We invite guest speakers from local government, facilitate internships at the food bank, the rape crisis center, and the floor of the state capitol. And our students have gone on to become policy makers, journalists, and, yes, K-12 teachers, who continue the cycle of forging engaged citizens.

But it is probably true that something special has been happening recently in terms of how young people are showing up, with much of the credit surely belonging to the young Black Lives Matter activists. They harnessed the ideology and outrage of centuries to organize a movement to end the casual, state-sanctioned killing of African-Americans. The BLM analysis seems to be echoed in this newest youth wave of anti-gun violence activism in in that here too, young people are calling foul on the government complicity that keeps them perpetually at the mercy of pissed off white guys with guns. For good reason, then, I have been increasingly impressed and hopeful since the first young BLM activists finessed control of my Twitter feed.

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And speaking from the trenches of my college classrooms — classes focused on racism, sexism, homophobia and other social justice issues — I can confirm one especially banal way that young people are newly showing up: They are doing their school work. They are coming to class and staying awake. Even my online students are clicking in, reading the articles, and more consistently completing their assignments. After some years of declining participation and enthusiasm as, I suppose, the career value of a college education became less clear and, perhaps, as expanded tolerance was taken for granted during the Obama years, I became almost accustomed to students who would sort of stroll by and wander in as the mood struck them.

But this academic year they are in a low smolder, I can hear them from down the hall before I walk in, irrepressible in their need to critique, compare and share. And though I may be imagining it, they also seem far less focused on the ticking clock as our time together ends. While my students are not a representative cross section — I teach social justice themed courses at a non-selective public university — the contrast between my current and former students is palpable. I need only recall the malaise and lethargy I felt from them as recently as a year and a half ago when I found myself practically begging them to get to the polls. Many sighed with world weary indifference. “It doesn’t really matter,” some actually said.

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It mattered then and it matters now. And more of them seem to know it. Better still, they seem to know what to do. Rusty, brittle politicians have prattled and prayed and proclaimed on social media, routinely crossing the lines of their own supposed norms of “decency” to shock, titillate and enrage. Young people have taken notes as hate mongerers have exploited the decorum and seriousness of practiced progressives, many of whom have stood preciously and politely by while unrepentant loudmouths have commandeered world attention. But my students, and those graduating from high school next year and the year after, have lightning fast Twitter thumbs and no compunction whatsoever about meeting these humdrum devils in their tacky fire-orange pits of hell. In this battle of brains and bravado, in this struggle for the souls and good sense of our nation, my money is on the students.

But will they vote?

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