Let the Children Lead Us

By Leah Grady Sayvetz, Ithaca, NY. 3/14/18

This morning, March 14, I woke late and as I looked at the numbers 9:24 on the clock I remembered that today is National School Walkout Day. At 10am, the students from the middle/high school across the street from my house would be leaving school, walking out of class as part of a nationally coordinated protest for an end to gun violence. I wanted to be with them. Thirty-five minutes later, as I stepped out of my front door, my breath caught in my chest: hundreds of children clad in coats and boots filed silently past. They filled the snowy sidewalk as far as I could see, many carrying signs drawn with colored markers on pieces of large white paper. My first instinct was to cheer, to encourage the students, to let these youngsters know how proud of them I am. But each small face passed me by in solemnity; a quiet, focused march through the falling snow. Their spirit drew me, then, into reverence. I fell in step with the crowd, following in silence, letting the children lead. The beanie-clad heads before and behind me rose no higher than my chest. I felt a deep sense of humility to be following the lead of such little ones. Today the children are showing us where we need to be.

As we wound our way under an overpass and up the stairs to the bridge we would be lining in single file, I watched the faces of this brigade, wondering where their thoughts were, what they were feeling. One student ahead of me in line wore a pointed elf-like hat made from polar fleece and decorated in bright colored patterns. They looked no older than eleven or twelve years old. And this child’s face held a calm, a focus that spoke volumes. I felt that this person knew that this is just where we need to be right now. Nothing too complicated about it. Their face communicated a sense of purpose, a sense of peace. At the same time, I could imagine how this action might feel a little scary, or tense to someone that age. I remembered an action I took part in when I was only nine or ten, at the White House in the late nineties. A group of us children went on a tour inside the building and once we made it in, we took off our winter coats to expose messages painted onto our clothing. My sweatshirt called for an end to the US Sanctions on Iraq that were causing the death of 5,000 Iraqi children each month. I remember how important it felt to paint the words on that gray sweatshirt and to get in line for the White House tour. I also remember how my body shook as we sang Silent Night and White House security officers directed us out the back door of the building by the dumpsters, away from the other tourists as quickly as possible. Looking into the calm eyes of my colorful hat-wearing compatriot this morning, I felt overwhelmed by the example that children can be for us.

How often do we realize that youth lead our movements? Today’s school walk-out hammered home, once again, that the youngest generation bears the brunt of governmental policies and of our failures as a society. As such, it is they who have the clearest vision of how to start changing things.

As I walked home from the bridge where we had held seventeen minutes of silence honoring the seventeen victims of the recent Parkland, FL, school shooting, my mind went to stories I know of children leading their communities in resistance to injustice. I know that the stories I can come up with comprise only a small fraction of all the examples youth give us in creating a more just world. I think of Ithaca High School’s Circle of Recovery students who organized in the early 2000’s to rename one of Ithaca’s main streets in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of the courageous high school students today leading our community in facing systemic racism in our schools. I think of Ferguson, Missouri, how these young people taking to the streets, risking their lives in doing so, ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. Native youth from Standing Rock ran 2,000 miles from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., in defense of their land, air and water, sparking the international movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the Jim Crow U.S. South of the 1950s and 60s, thousands of African American children and teenagers put their bodies on the front lines of the civil rights movement. These stories are chronicled powerfully through the first-person narratives of thirty young freedom fighters in Freedom’s Children, a compilation by Ellen Levine. In Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March, author Lynda Blackman Lowery describes how the African American school children of Selma, Alabama, organized amongst themselves, leading regular youth marches and enduring brutal violence and jail time leading up to the 1965 voting rights march. Examples of children-led resistance come to us, too, from other parts of the globe, and farther back in history. International activists joined the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in marching through the streets of US-occupied Kabul in 2011, calling for peace in an ongoing campaign led by the Afghan youth group. You can visit them at ourjourneytosmile.com to learn more about their vision and to plug in to their global days of listening that connect youth around the world in conversation over skype. How many of us learned in school about the children strikers during the early 20th Century labor movement in the US? Hundreds of children workers went on strike in the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike, marching in New York City and even testifying before congress. The path of history has been paved in no small part by the initiative, courage, and sacrifice of children.

I want us to ask ourselves: Do we affirm our youth enough? Do we listen when young people cry out? Do we acknowledge how many children have literally laid their bodies down for justice for all people? Do we teach our children about the children today and the children of previous generations whose voices spark movements that change the face of our world?

Today the school children who filed silently past my house, their supplications penned brightly on handheld placards, gently placed a reminder in my heart of the great power held in all of their young hands. We should heed their wisdom and affirm their leadership. We can do this in so many ways, and one of them is by teaching our own children about those who came before them and the fearlessness that countless young people have shown in standing up for justice. For the justice our youth demand is justice for all of us.

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