Today, nineteen years after the tragedy in Columbine, students all over the country walked out of their schools in protest of gun violence, of nothing having been done to protect them in the nearly two decades since, of the greediness of the NRA. Here in Iowa, they congregated at the State Capitol. Some held signs they had worked on, “Books not Bullets,” “Teenage Girls Should be Worrying About Prom Not Guns,” “MSD 17 Forever in our Hearts.” Some stood solemnly. Many were just hanging out.
Then a girl was hurt. Fell to the ground, writhing. Her friends said she was knocked down. Hit. Some were crying hysterical. No one knew what to do as there were no police on the site, nor the usual waiting ambulance. These were middle-schoolers. I had seen them earlier in their blue tee shirts. Some appeared out of control being free from school, others were involved. But there was no one with them. Not a teacher. Not a parent. Because it wasn’t a school sanctioned event, 6th graders were left without any supervision and they were scared.
I watched. I helped. I hugged. I tried to be maternal. I tried to find out what happened.
“There were fights everywhere,” one girl said. At least seven others relayed the same thing. Later I asked a few other kids and they all agreed, fighting between schools had taken place.
One could say, at a certain point, it was mayhem. Suddenly a swarm of kids took off after a sheriff who was chasing a boy down through the trees and tall grass below. After he was caught and handcuffed they walked back up the hill. Right passed the injured girl who was still lying in the street, against the curb, waiting for an ambulance. When it finally arrived, the police cars were in the way and had to be moved. It seemed to take forever.
A person I know who was there called it a “nice” event. It wasn’t. I tend not to describe events that have their origins in death by guns as “Nice.” Kids ripped from this earth before they had a chance to live. I had my camera. I saw things he hadn’t and seeing these things allowed me to be part of it, invited into it, able to understand the truth. My lens let me see the girl holding a sign high above her head; “If I’m Shot in School Leave My Body On the Steps of the NRA.” Her expression was not nice. Not polite. Not serene. Not okay. Not even mildly pleasant. It was full of anger and fear and determination.
No. There was nothing nice about what I saw today. Not in the senior speaking emotionally about gun violence to the crowd of her peers. Not in the tears in the eyes of 7th grade girls, not in the laughing groups of kids, the kids play-fighting and real-fighting. Nice didn’t play a role in anything today. The kids who were fighting more than likely were terrified. Terrified of guns in schools, guns on the way home from school, guns all around them. Angry that no adult was doing a thing to stop it. Hell, if a grown-up couldn’t even come along with them to protest gun violence, what could they do about the actual reality of it?
As the protest was winding down a younger girl came up to me with a small group of friends. She just started talking to me. “I’m scared,” she said. “Of teachers with guns. Teachers hate their students. They are racist. They will shoot the black kids. They will. If a teacher is mad and has a gun, he will put it in your face and pull the trigger.”
I listened to her by watching her lips moving fast, her dark eyes staring at me, searching for something. I nodded. “I agree completely with you,” I said.
Then she was okay. Her friends nodded behind her, and she went back to her phone, drifting away. I don’t know who she thought I was: a reporter, a teacher, a parent, a photographer. But by telling me her opinion on this new anti-gun movement, by letting me know that she was aware and thinking about it, she trusted an adult. I was honored. I was also worried. All those kids running around, fighting, arguing, laughing and playing while the event was going on I am afraid are afraid. And what concerns me most is they might not have anyone to talk to about it. No way to process Parkland or the violence they may see in their own worlds.
It wasn’t a nice event. I can debate that until the end of time. It was important. Powerful. Necessary. Chaotic. Unfocused. Emotional. But not nice. Let’s reserve that description for graduations and weddings. Milestones that children taken in places like Chicago, Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland won’t ever experience.
After what I saw in our youth today I say we adults better not just step aside and let them do the hard and dirty work. Because it is weighing heavy on them. No matter how they either pretend not to notice or are in the trenches fighting. They need to know when it becomes too much, when they don’t have the words, or have only tears, we will wrap what wisdom we have around them and keep them safe. When a child is down, go to that child. When a child is soaring, keep a steady eye on them. When they succeed, because they will, be a part of it. Because the condition our country is in due to gun violence is too overwhelming for any child of any age to challenge alone.
These kids watch the news. They know the statistics. The truth. Today is Friday. Since Monday there have been 660 acts involving guns. Now, isn’t that nice?