As I sit down to write this column, high school students in Florida are at their state capitol. It’s not a school field trip. It’s a tipping point.
Nineteen years ago, I was a university student. On a Tuesday in April I sat in shock, watching kids basically my own age, fleeing Columbine High School, arms above their heads, racing for safety. It was the first school shooting of which I can recall live coverage.
It seems there has been almost a steady stream of school shootings since then, with almost the same conversations that follow. But this time, the response is different. This time, it’s fiercely loyal, idealistic, educated young adults who are leading the calls for change.
“We’re not going to just let the grief wash over us and then fade away. We’re going to do something about it.”
Those are the words of Emma Gonzales, a Parkland, Florida student who was in the auditorium when shots began to echo through the halls of her school. For many, she has become the face of this most recent tragedy, her impassioned plea “We call BS” repeated again and again in news clips and chanted by fellow students and supporters.
Emma and her classmates, and their peers across the United States and throughout Canada, have grown up under the threat of school shootings. They were just being born when Columbine happened. They were just entering their teens when Sandy Hook happened. They are the first generation to truly grow up with this type of gun violence – and they are about to start voting.
My parents grew up with duck and cover drills, meant to prepare students for a nuclear attack. My children are learning lockdown drills, meant to prepare them for an active shooter situation. (Me, I only had to practice fire safety drills.) We found ways to mitigate the risks of nuclear attack and stop making duck and cover drills a part of school life. Maybe the time is coming for active shooter drills to be retired, too.
My generation hasn’t lived with the fear that students like Emma have come to realize. “They say, ‘You don’t think about it until it happens’ – I was always thinking about it,” Emma told reporters after the shooting. “And now that it’s happened, there’s nothing that could have possibly made me angrier and more ready to do something.”
I don’t know what it’s like to grow up preparing yourself for a possible school shooting. But I do know what it’s like to lose classmates in high school: To accidents. To disease. To violence. To a gun. I know that returning to class next to an empty chair can leave a permanent mark on your soul. And I know that such loss can bring people together in ways you never imagined.
These students, the ones leading my children’s generation, are being pulled together by the shared fear of another active shooter drill, another actual school shooting, another empty seat beside them in class. They are the generation that can bring about change – not only to gun laws in the United States, but also to the way in which we deal with mitigating factors such as mental health and bullying.
I’ll be watching on March 24 as students who survived the Florida shooting are joined by their peers across the country – and across our country – for The March for Our Lives. This is about more than just the need for gun reform in one country. This is about the need for empathy and the right to safety in all countries. This is about the next generation taking control of their future.