OPED: The world is seeing the teens I know

Kay McSpadden
Tribune News Service

I'm used to it — the sympathetic look, the disbelieving head shake – when I tell someone I'm a high school teacher. "Teenagers!" a new acquaintance will say. "How do you stand them!"

Indeed, teenagers can be snarky. Surly. Mercurial. Short-sighted. Exasperating.

But they are also the very best people. Honest to a fault, generous-hearted and optimistic, more willing to listen and learn than adults, they stand in the nexus of self-discovery and global awareness. Watching them take that journey, walking with them a bit as they launch into adulthood, is the best job in the world.

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That's why teachers put up with inadequate resources and poor pay. It's why they use their own money to buy Christmas gifts and graduation robes for their students who can't afford them. It's why some have laid down their lives protecting the teenagers in their care.

That teenagers are the best people has been on display since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Shocked, grief-stricken, tearful, they are sharing their rage and resolve in a very public way.

David Hogg, a 17-year-old student journalist, used his phone to document his classmates' terror while they huddled in a closet during the attack.

"I want to show people exactly what's going on when these children are facing bullets flying through classrooms and students are dying trying to get an education," he told CNN.

Senior Emma Gonzalez read her heartfelt condemnation of adult hypocrisy from sheaves of handwritten notebook paper in a speech that has gone viral. Junior Jaclyn Corin organized a trip to Tallahassee to speak to state leaders.

"We took 17 bullets to the heart," Corin said. "We are the only ones who can speak up."

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Cameron Kasky, a junior, is raising money on GoFundMe to support his March for Our Lives, a national gathering in Washington on March 24.

"Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear," he wrote.

I don't know if this student activism will last or move the dial of political will. Certainly we've seen anguish and outrage over gun violence before. After 20 young children and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook, many people willing to support sensible gun control threw up their hands in the face of intractable political stonewalling.

But there's something in the air now that wasn't there before. The Women's Marches, advocacy groups such as Indivisible, protests against white supremacy in Charlottesville, calls for humane immigration reform, the #MeToo movement — people are empowered in a way that feels new.

Teenagers might be at the right place in their personal lives to be transformed by this groundswell of change. Still optimistic, unbowed by defeat, this generation is media savvy and technologically nimble. They see the lack of adult leadership on gun control and are leading the charge.

They shouldn't have to. But they also shouldn't be ducking bullets and attending the funerals of their friends and teachers. They shouldn't have as the enduring memory of high school a moment of terror and tragedy.

Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie summed up the students this way: "They are intelligent, they're articulate, they're passionate, and they're committed to securing a safe future for themselves. This is their moment, this is their generation, and they're stepping up and doing what needs to happen. I feel so encouraged that this time it will be different."

— Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C.