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Walk and Chew Gum

Yesterday marked a touchstone moment in the U.S., as students across the country participated in "walkouts." This was an occasion for students to express an array of thoughts and emotions, ranging from a desire for stricter gun control, to simply sorrow over the loss of so many of their peers to school shootings. They were peaceful protests, but protests nonetheless. Where you're at on the spectrum of agreeing or disagreeing with what they did may vary, though not wanting to get shot in your school seems pretty reasonable to me.

Some folks have taken to sharing a meme on social media platforms this week -- in direct anticipation and response to the walkouts -- that encourages students to "walk up, not out." Following are suggestions provided for the walk ups:

  • Walk UP to the kid who sits ALONE and ask him to join your group
  • Walk UP to the kid who never has a voluntary partner and offer to be hers
  • Walk UP to your teachers and thank them!
  • Walk UP to someone and JUST BE NICE!

This strikes a particular nerve with me, as I felt isolated, and was bullied, during my time in public school. This isn't news to anyone who knows me, or has read this blog, but I thought it worth mentioning here, because the "walk up" stuff fills me with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, sure, be nice to people. Thank teachers. Befriend a lonely classmate. Etc, etc. That is not, however, mutually exclusive with students -- fearful for their safety -- participating in peaceful walkouts in order to express themselves and vent their frustrations. This isn't an either/or situation.

I distinctly remember those who were nice to me in high school, or who acknowledged my existence in a non-adversarial way, because they were few and far between. Their kindness meant so much and, quite frankly, saved me from deep, dark contemplations of suicide. The bullying and antagonizing atmosphere at school made me a nervous wreck, and I finished high school on home bound education. So, yes, I certainly support students walking up to their peers who feel isolated and offering them gentleness and concern. In that regard, I wholly embrace the concept of walk ups.

What bothers me about the "walk up" movement as it's been distributed this week, is how it conflates gun violence in school with those who are bullied, or treated as outcasts. There are a lot of problems here, and they are definitely worthy of being addressed, but fusing them together comes across as victim-blaming. It seems ludicrous that it needs saying, but no one -- not even the worst of the terrible bullies -- deserves to be shot at and/or killed.

By all means, please encourage our youngsters to be warm, considerate and decent human beings to their fellow classmates. But, when they are rising up in protest of their schools becoming potential -- and literal -- battlegrounds, when they are scared for their lives, the last thing we should do is insinuate that, if only they'd been nicer to their peers, then perhaps they wouldn't have to worry about gunmen entering their buildings. Is there an implied connection there? I really, truly hope there isn't.

The timing of the "walk up" memes with the "walkouts" is a little unsettling, to put it mildly. And that's a shame, because the basic message is a good one. We should be nice to one another. It's a sad commentary that it needs saying. As for the walkouts, well, as I mentioned earlier, it seems pretty reasonable to not want to be shot in your school, so I'm fine with students across the country taking a stand about it. Again, the fact that they feel the need to do so is another sad commentary on where we are today.


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