I have kids in elementary, middle, and high school, which means I saw the student-driven response to Wednesday’s school walkout on three levels.
My 5-year-old daughter didn’t know it was happening. Although intruder drills are a part of her experience, she isn’t aware of what happened in Parkland, Florida; or Newtown, Connecticut; or Littleton, Colorado. Blessedly. She was probably coloring during the 17 minutes or building with blocks or swinging.
My 11-year-old daughter is passionate about gun control, is already fiercely political, and is anxious about school safety. She walked out with many of her peers to a school-sanctioned ceremony in the Chapel where they lit candles and prayed for 17 minutes.
My 16-year-old stepson is supportive of the students who walked out, but he is a studious kid and didn’t want to miss 17 minutes of school because it fell during his AP history class.>
These are all good responses.
What isn’t a good response is the Walk Up Not Out movement that has sprung up seemingly out of nowhere.
“Instead of walking out of school on March 14, encourage students to walk up – walk up to the kid who sits alone at lunch and invite him to sit with your group; walk up to the kid who sits quietly in the corner of the room and sit next to her, smile and say Hi; walk up to the kid who causes disturbances in class and ask how he is doing; walk up to your teachers and thank them; walk up to someone who has different views than you and get to know them — you may be surprised at how much you have in common,” the viral Tweet reads. “Build on that foundation instead of casting stones. I challenge students to find 14 students and 3 adults to walk up to and say something nice in honor of those who died in FL on the 14 of March. But you can start practicing now! #walkupnotout”
There are many reasons this is problematic.
On its face, there’s nothing really wrong with it, except that I probably wouldn’t encourage my kids to necessarily seek out the kid who is causing disturbances. But being kind to others and saying thank you? Of course. All of my kids are kind (most of the time, anyway), and when I overheard my then-9-year-old being snotty about a fellow classmate, she and I had a very long talk about kindness and compassion. (Now the girl she was being snotty about is one of her best friends, which, given the ebb and flow of tween girl friendships, might have happened anyway but which I will still take partial credit for because I’m the mom, that’s why.)
To be fair, the post doesn’t outright say that it’s encouraging this as a response to school shootings; it merely offers it as an alternative to walking out in protest. Still, given that the walkout was a protest about gun violence in schools, it is all too easy to extrapolate that, and many people have.
I’ve certainly seen plenty of people lately perpetuating the myth that the Columbine shooting happened largely because the two shooters were being bullied by the popular kids. That simply isn’t true: The boys weren’t particularly unpopular, and even if they had been bullied, suggesting that killing 13 people and wounding 24 more before shooting yourselves is any kind of a response to bullying is quite clearly outrageous.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooter, on the other hand, was not well-liked because he killed animals, picked fights, and threatened people. You can’t ask kids to be nice to someone so scary, nor should you ever suggest that being nice to them would have stopped the bloodshed. You can’t negotiate with terrorists; you can’t change the behavior of psychopaths by sitting next to them at lunch.
The problem with Walk Up Not Out it is not that it emphasizes kindness; it’s that it’s juxtaposed with the walkout as though students can’t do both – and also, as I said above, that it implies that there is some kind of causal link between bullying and mass killing, which is not supported by research at all, and almost goes as far as to lay blame for school shootings on the victims and bystanders and not the shooters.
Another problem is that many so-called social outcasts – the ones who almost certainly won’t shoot up the school but are teased and unpopular – just want to be left alone. They don’t want people to be nice to them out of fear or pity instead of genuine interest. No one does.
In grade school, I was neither popular nor unpopular. I had some friends and went to sleepovers and parties, but I was also weird and nerdy and read a lot of books. I mostly tried to stay off the radar.
But in third grade, there was one kid who was singled out for particular ridicule. He was socially awkward and had a collection of weird tics and behaviors that made him an easy target, I guess, although he really could have been picked at random. Many of the other kids were merciless to him – the term “bullying” can be overused these days, but what they did to this kid would qualify under any definition. It was appalling. They jumped on his back and pulled his hair. They taunted him. They called him disgusting names. They spit on him.
For a few days, I watched with a mixture of horror at my fellow man and gratitude that it wasn’t me, and then I worked up my courage and told a teacher. We all got a lecture on kindness and inclusion, after which the violence against this kid escalated as retaliation. I felt terrible. The next time the bullying started up, I waited until it ended (for better or worse, I have always had too strong a sense of self-preservation to intervene in such matters) and then sought the victim out under the slide, where he was huddled, crying.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “What they’re doing is wrong. Are you OK?”
“Get the hell away from me RIGHT NOW!” he snarled. “RIGHT. NOW. GO. AWAY.”
And so I did. I scrambled out from under the slide and ran away. I never talked to him again.
I don’t blame him. He was like a wounded animal that bites the human who tries to pick it up – lashing out due to pain. And as far as I know, he switched schools the next year and went on to live a normal life.
I also don’t blame myself for trying. I was just an awkward, shy, wimpy kid trying to be nice but not knowing the best course and aiming for as little risk to myself as possible.
But “walking up” to him changed nothing. It’s disingenuous to suggest that the problem of school shootings is as easy to solve as being nicer to people – it’s not a bad idea, of course, within reason (again, limit your involvement with and investment in psychopaths whenever possible), but it puts the onus on the wrong people and it may force unwanted attention on kids who don’t really want to be walked up to.
And it’s definitely not something you need to do instead of walking out. I’m proud of my kids for making their own choices.
But most of all, I’m proud of them for being decent humans.
Instead of Walk Up Not Out, I think a better slogan is one that Ruby has been obsessed with since she read "Wonder" over summer break: Choose Kind.
Walk out if you want to. Stay in if you’d prefer (or have studying to do!). But always choose kind.