Over the course of these past two weeks, I’ve been watching a lot of adolescents in front of the cameras. Sports crews in South Korea often focus on the teenagers, not on the older Olympic athletes. News crews in Florida zoom in on the high school students, not their parents. The stories on TV have substantially been about youth.
On the face of it, events in PyeongChang and Parkland could not have been more different. In Korea, I seemed to be watching adolescents at the pinnacle of their craft, performing tasks they had been practicing thousands of times. In Florida, on the other hand, high schoolers seemed to emerge spontaneously to tell their stories of shock and pain and, through improvisation, translate that grief into action.
And yet Olympic adolescents are usually not cool and calm professionals. They take risks; they reject routines; they make decisions on the fly. Witness, for example, Nick Porteous, the 16 year-old New Zealander whose risky and unexpected half-pipe freestyle run shocked no one more than himself.
Nick Porteous after his run.
Conversely, high school student leaders from Parkland were well-prepared for their roles. I make this point without subscribing to false conspiracy theories about “crisis actors.” My point is that these students studied; they practiced making persuasive arguments; they learned from their teachers and from each other. As one pointed out:
Delaney Tarr, Student Activist
We are lucky enough to come from a very affluent neighborhood. We go to an amazing school that’s been giving us so many opportunities to learn about government, to learn about policy, to learn about social issues. We have so many clubs and classes dedicated to this type of thing, so we know what we’re talking about. And we’ve always been ready to speak out about it, but this has hit so close to home that we have to speak out about this, right now …
One of our members of the House of Representatives, Ted Deutch, he actually came down just weeks before [the shooting] to speak to us because we’ve been so politically involved. So many of us are in politics clubs. So many of us are in AP government.
We dedicate ourselves to this. We dedicate ourselves to learning about this. So we are in a place where we are lucky enough to know what to say, to know what to talk about, and to know what changes need to be made. And it’s sad to think about us being lucky at a time like this, but we have the ability to do something that others may not. –Delaney Tarr
Delaney Tarr ascribes a good amount of her and her peers’ preparation to the relative advantage they hold as members of an affluent community. I agree, and I would also argue that most adolescents, almost anywhere, are endowed with a distinctive combination of passion, dedication, and risk-taking. Since adolescents do not often see much tension between well-practiced behavior and risk-taking behavior, they are inherently predisposed to be great activists (and athletes, artists, etc.). We should not be surprised to see adolescents in front of the cameras; we should instead ask why we don’t see them there more often. Delaney Tarr’s point about relative advantage offers one possible explanation; another is Bill Deresiewicz’s argument about excellent sheep.
We will likely see more adolescent activists soon. There are no less than three national student actions (on school safety and gun-related violence) planned in the next two months. Over the past week I have heard from Gann students, parents, and faculty. All are wondering, in one form or another, what the Gann administration thinks about these upcoming events.
I would like to devote our next meeting to the question of how we most effectively work with our students during this time of national student-led activism. In the meantime, let me offer two principles:
- If students want to take action, students should lead the process. We can advise; we can suggest or offer resources; we can help them think through options. But we must give them the space in which to organize and to act. The choice-points – and the sacrifices — should be theirs to make. If we co-opt an event and make it a faculty-driven process, or a “Gann-sponsored” program, then it’s no longer student-led activism. If we make it about us, we’re failing them.
- At the same time, our students clearly need guidance and supervision. We cannot shirk our duty as coaches and teachers responsible for their general welfare. As adults, we have the advantage of fully developed prefrontal cortexes; we should advise our students accordingly.
Yes, it’s a balancing act, but I am confident that we can navigate this path. Now, more than ever, I feel blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to work with all of you and most especially with all our students.