Our kids, in the comments cesspool

Our kids, in the comments cesspool

Most of the social-media comments about the school walkout were made with inflammatory language, in dismissive tones, and a lack of information about the kids they were pillorying

WEST BRATTLEBORO — In the wake of the recent well-publicized walkouts at schools around the country, I made the mistake of reading comments on the social-media links to stories covering the events.

Not surprisingly, this was not the path to personal internal peace.

I read comments about how disrespectful and uninformed “kids today” are. Ironically, most of those comments were made in incredibly inflammatory language, with dismissive tones, and with a real lack of actual information about the viewpoints and knowledge bases of the kids they were pillorying.

In fact, many of those making grand statements about the walkout at Brattleboro Union High School acknowledge that they did not attend the event, so their information is based on video clips, photos, and hearsay.

I usually try to restrain myself from reading and responding to comments in those settings, but sometimes I just can't help myself. Though I generally try to be reflective more than reactive, I'm quite sure that my own knee-jerk responses to this sort of commentary were just as blood-pressure-elevating to people who disagree with me.

There's just something about the comments section that seems to bring out the worst in all of us, deepening the already daunting divide that runs right up the middle of American society these days.

I understand that the moral/ethical/political viewpoint of the students who walked out will not be shared by everyone. That's the great thing: We don't have to agree on all matters.

Still, I wanted to respond to three very basic types of comments I read. I would like to call my fellow citizens to a stance of respect for those who are trying to impact the dialogue.

* * *

A surprising number of comments I read were along the lines of “These same kids were eating Tide Pods two months ago. Suddenly they're serious students of public policy who are capable of organizing their own protest?”

I get it: the big story in January that there was a trend of young teens eating laundry detergent on a dare didn't inspire trust in the maturity and intelligence of those who were doing the eating.

The fact that the BUHS walkout was coordinated incredibly well by three smart young women who got the word out through social media and abided by the limits set by the school administration (who did not help to carry it out or indoctrinate the kids to do so) shows me that these kids are learning a great deal about the U.S. Constitution and their own civil rights, about the ways in which societal change has historically been effective through nonviolent civil disobedience, and about the fact that knowing their stuff is critical if they're to bring about change.

Sure, teenagers are capable of doing some foolish things. In every generation, some kids have experimented in obviously stupid, life-endangering activities that have the left the older generations scratching our heads.

The only difference is that now, in the 24-hour news cycle, the rest of us hear it again and again, making it seem like a trend, regardless of how few kids have actually participated.

In spite of what we may all have read, the vast majority of teenagers have never eaten Tide Pods, and have no intention of doing so.

* * *

It certainly is our communal obligation to teach each emerging generation to be kind and compassionate, to stick up for those being bullied, and to be as inclusive as possible.

But when adults say “walk up, not out” as a way of preventing mass shootings at school, that's putting the burden of safety on students' shoulders.

Once again, in every generation, there have been bullies. (What, for instance, do you think it was like to be a non-athletic, effeminate boy in schools in the 1950s?) And yet, even in an age where actively teaching kids not to be bullies wasn't yet a regular occurrence, you didn't see bullied kids shooting up their schools with far-too-powerful weapons.

Furthermore, it seems from the comments that I've read that at least some of the very same people who are saying “walk up” are the ones who are absolutely cruel in their comments about the homeless/begging population in downtown Brattleboro.

If you want your kids to “walk up” to the outcasts, you had better be showing them how it's done, walking up in kindness to the people who are clearly not thriving in our town.

If you have nothing but scorn for those folks, don't expect your children to do any better.

* * *

In response to those who say “they don't know what they're talking about” or “they're just following the crowd,” I want to ask, “Have you gotten to know these kids?”

If you're someone who says these kids are just mindless lemmings, walking out to be cool or to miss a few minutes of school, I challenge you to reach outside your comfort zone and actually talk to some of them.

Don't hurl insults; actually talk and, yes, listen. Let them know you care about their experiences. If their arguments lack nuance, offer them questions and information that might help them to think more deeply.

Furthermore, show up! Show up at their games, their art shows, their dramatic productions and concerts. Admire their work during Student Art Month and at the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, at New England Youth Theatre, and at In-Sight Photography Project.

See what they're doing in their attempts to get a skatepark in town, or where they're volunteering. Talk to them at Living Memorial Park at the rink or the slope. See how much work they are putting into producing excellence.

Kids across the whole political spectrum are doing really cool things, both in school and in the wider community.

* * *

I'm glad some of those really engaged kids feel empowered and impassioned enough to plan the walkout. I'm glad that those who didn't want to participate felt comfortable staying in school.

I hope that those two groups of kids can still talk with one another, because dialogue is the key to overcoming some of these huge cultural divides.

As for me, the walkout gave me hope, which has been in short supply lately. This generation nipping at the rest of our heels has learned some powerful lessons about what they value and what they won't tolerate. They are strong, courageous, flawed like the rest of us, and getting ready to make some real impact.

Kids today.

I think they're pretty awesome.

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