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Higher ed administrators walk a fine line with civic engagement. We’re supposed to encourage civic engagement without ever doing anything controversial ourselves. That isn’t necessarily a contradiction, but it’s certainly a tension, and everybody has issues on which they just can’t pretend neutrality. At some point, if you want to maintain credibility in your advocacy of civic engagement, you have to be willing to walk the walk.

All of which is by way of saying, we took The Boy and The Girl to the March for Our Lives in Washington this weekend. It was their first march on the capital, but I don’t think it will be their last. And TW and I walked with them. I will not pretend neutrality on gun violence, especially against students.

The kids were not passive passengers. The Girl was one of the organizers of the walkout at her school, and The Boy participated in his. They both wanted to go. TB even hosted a signmaking party for this friends last Thursday night, at which high school students wielded posterboard and sharpies (“NOT ON THE CARPET!”) to prepare their messages. Some of the students stayed local to demonstrate outside our Representative’s office or to march in local demonstrations; TB and TG (and TB’s girlfriend) prepared to go national.

We stayed with my brother and his family. They live in Arlington, and know the city well, so their place made a good base of operations.  It also allowed TB and TG to hang with their cousins, which is always fun to watch. The smaller one is about half of TB’s size, and adores him; he’s a gentle giant and a good sport, so the interaction is endearing. 

The ten of us made our way into the city and found a spot on Pennsylvania avenue from which we could sort-of see one of the jumbotrons. The younger kids ran out of gas after an hour or so, so they retreated back to home base along with their parents. The five of us stayed for the entire program.

I’ve been to a few marches over the years, so the experience wasn’t entirely new. But I saw two things at this one that I hadn’t seen before. The first was that every speaker was a teenager or younger; there weren’t any big muckety-mucks from the usual organizations.  Every speaker had a personal reason to be there, some of which were tough to hear. They were all remarkably well-spoken, including a couple of eleven-year-olds. And they made the welcome decision to broaden the focus beyond Parkland, and even schools generally, to address violence in urban areas as well.  It was a consciously inclusive message. The political scientist in me was heartened to hear so many 16 and 17 year olds exclaim their eagerness to vote as soon as they’re allowed. Youth turnout is usually low, especially in midterms, but this one feels different.

The second came when Emma Gonzalez spoke. TG calls her “our Katniss,” which seems about right.  Gonzalez ran through the list of names of students who were killed at Parkland, making personal references about each.  She then noted that the shooting took six minutes and twenty seconds, so she stopped speaking for six minutes and twenty seconds.  From where we were, near the National Archives, it wasn’t immediately clear why she had stopped talking; at first, I thought she was overcome by emotion, as some speakers were.  But as the silence continued, the reason became clear. The crowd got quiet. Then, in a variation on The Wave, a sea of hands went up flashing the peace sign. We joined in, holding up the sign for several minutes in absolute silence.  Soon the entire street was flooded with silent people calling for peace.

Quiet is one thing. 800,000 people being absolutely silent, holding up peace signs, is something else.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The only sounds were people sniffling, trying not to sob.

Before leaving, we got a photo of TB and TG standing in front of the capital, holding their signs towards it. I tweeted it out with the caption “Challenge accepted.”

When we finally made our way back to Arlington -- seriously, DC, we need to have a conversation about civic planning and subway maintenance -- it was time for the cousins to enjoy each other, and for my brother and me to banter in the trivia-inflected way that drives everyone else out of the room.  (“Have you seen Lyle Waggoner’s audition for Batman on Youtube? It was really flat.” “I know, right? Adam West owned the absurdity of it.” “Exactly!”) The kids were gloriously goofy, and we all just enjoyed each other’s presence.

It’s why we were there in the first place.  It’s why everyone was there.

I remember my first march well. I hope the kids remember theirs, too.  I hope they remember it as the moment that things started to change.  Even if things don’t change nationally, they saw that they don’t have to be helpless. They don’t just have to watch the news; they can make some. As their Dad, I’m not neutral on that.  I’m proud as hell.

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