On Wednesday a phone conversation and TV images from Florida made me scrap my almost-completed article for this week. I knew I had to write instead about young people who take a stand.
As the recent Otterbein graduate on the phone described an impactful leadership course taught by Otterbein’s president, I glanced at my muted television screen and saw students gathered at the Tallahassee statehouse. My mind conjured up similar scenes during the spring of 1970, when I had already spent four months in Germany, completed student teaching, and signed a contract to teach at Graham.
But across the country, colleges and even some high schools became flashpoints for unrest. Students occupied administrative offices and demonstrated against American involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia. Up and down the road from Otterbein, my sister had to leave her studies at Ohio State when the campus closed because of riots. A month before my own graduation, four young people were killed at Kent State during clashes between protesters and National Guardsmen.
At Otterbein we proactively tackled another prevalent source of campus controversy: young people were demanding a voice in decisions made at their educational institutions. During my return from Germany I coincidentally shared a flight home from New York with Otterbein’s dean, who invited me to serve on one such committee. The resulting work, negotiating and compromising with Otterbein administrators and professors, turned out to be the experience of a lifetime.
Probably the most integral part of our work was to establish the College Senate, still in existence all these years later. We students faced outright dissension as all sides struggled to reach agreement on the membership of that overarching governance body. We stood our ground and achieved one of our priorities: equal representation by administration, faculty, and students.
Those Florida kids with their signs and speeches and earnest, young faces reminded me of the most significant lesson I learned at Otterbein during that long-ago spring. Regardless of the issues – war back then or school shootings now, I wholeheartedly believe we must listen to young people and their concerns.
Surely we can agree that kids hold a huge stake in the issues against which they protest. In 1970 young people were dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia during a difficult-to-understand war. Today young people are dying in their classrooms during a national struggle to adequately address effective gun legislation and mental health issues. The bottom line was – and is – their lives are involved. It only stands to reason their voices should be heard.
Late adolescence is not always the easiest time for kids and the adults in their lives. It is a fact of child development that young people in their late teens are trying to establish their independence by distancing themselves from their parents. The transition can be pretty uneven. How often did I hear one day: “After all, I AM 17!” The next day it was: “After all, I am ONLY 17!”
And we adults can treat them unevenly, too. We allow, even expect, mature behavior from kids behind their steering wheels, at the counters and kitchens of fast food restaurants, from lifeguard stands at the local pool. We count on them to vote responsibly, to keep the world safe for democracy on distant battlefields, to make good decisions with the firearms they are permitted to purchase. But more than one adult has been heard to utter: “After all, you ARE 17!” A moment later: “After all, you are ONLY 17!”
I say let them come to the discussion table when their lives are affected. They will never learn about negotiation and compromise from hearing about them – they need to experience these concepts by being part of them.
However, we cannot afford to patronize young people or pay mere lip service. We must teach them to listen carefully to all viewpoints by our example of listening to all viewpoints. We need to understand youthful idealism and determination, just as our younger counterparts need to respect adult practicality and experience. We need to accept the uncomfortable questions they are bound to ask, just as they need to understand the complicated nature of difficult issues.
However, it would be a mistake to listen to young voices only during the noise and chaos of war protests and Second Amendment struggles. On a much smaller scale during my first year of teaching, I heard seniors grousing that the principal would never allow commencement exercises to be held on the football field. Having been intimidated by the same administrator, Ronald Pawlowski, during my senior year, I nonetheless suggested they organize, book an appointment, and make a presentation. Kudos still to that wise principal who listened, considered, and agreed.
This week the Stoneman Douglas students are scheduled to return with brave faces and trembling hearts to the scene of the most horrifying experience of their young lives. I fervently hope they will carry with them a sense that their voices have been and will continue to be heard. I fervently hope they will remain determined to effect solutions where for so long there have been none. I fervently hope we adults can push aside our talking points and political entanglements to really listen to the kids – and each other. How better can we keep America great than by respecting all ages and all viewpoints in collective determination to solve our problems?
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.