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Why walking out is good, walking up is insufficient, reaching out is important, and nothing is ever, ever simple or easy

Students rally in front of the White House on March 14, 2018
Adults, it’s time for you to walk up to the plate. (Photo credit Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Today, thousands of students across the country walked out of their schools to protest gun violence and demand legislation that will protect them from such. At some schools, the walkout lasted 17 minutes — one minute for each person who was killed in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting exactly one month ago. Other walkouts lasted longer — for instance, the crowd of students gathering in front of the White House to call for action.

But some students are being discouraged from marching. The Walk Up Not Out movement tells kids that instead of walking out to protest gun violence, they should walk up to a lonely kid and be nice to them to “possibly prevent the unjustifiable heartache of hundreds of lives in the future.” According to one of the people who inspired the movement, “Don’t trust that walking out of school will bring an answer. Gun control or more laws is not, and will not, be the answer. You are the answer.”

The idea that abruptly being nice to the lonely kid in P.E. is the answer, and the only answer, to gun violence in schools is ridiculous — and the kids who currently fear for their lives in a place they should feel safe don’t deserve to be burdened with that kind of pressure. Here’s why.

Before we start:

Things I’m not saying

– I’m not saying that the emotional health of mass shooters is more important than the lives of their victims.
– I’m not saying that we should focus on this more than gun control.
– I’m not saying that we should focus on this as much as gun control.
– I’m definitely not saying that we should focus on this instead of gun control, or that if we can only get kids to be nicer to each other, the country can have hot and cold running assault rifles and there will never be a school shooting ever again.
– I’m not saying that I sympathize with mass shooters.
– I’m not saying that mass shooters are actually victims themselves, or that they’re all just sad and misunderstood.
– I’m not saying that the man who killed 17 people with a semiautomatic rifle last month was just a sad boy with a sad story and we should feel sorry for him.

The thing I am saying

– This is life, and nothing about life is simple and easy, and pretending that it is because complicated-and-difficult is scary will only make the worst possible situations even worse.

With that in mind…

Walk out.

Yes. Do that. Kids all over the country did that today — some of them risking punishment from their schools for doing it — to make a point and and advocate for their own lives, and that is awesome.

“Walk Up Not Out” is bullshit. Kids can be kind and speak out in favor of life-saving legislation. The idea of making it an “instead” is just a way to get the kids to shut up about something that makes the adults uncomfortable, and that’s bullshit. Shutting up and being polite about uncomfortable subjects has never led to change. Not in the 1770s, not in the 1910s, not in the 1960s, and not now.

Don’t just “walk up.”

It’s not fair to put the responsibility to prevent school shootings on the shoulders of kids, and that’s what most discussion around “Walk Up Not Out” is doing. It is not okay for us to send a message to these teenagers that if only they’d talked to the loner kid, their friends might not be dead right now. Sophomore comes in and sprays the cafeteria with rifle fire? Man, you should have invited him to sit with you at lunch. Next time, you’ll know. We can encourage kids to be kind and generous and self-aware without attaching it to “so you and your classmates won’t get shot by the kid you ignored.”

And come on, it’s not like the kid won’t know that people are only being nice to him because they view him as a potential threat (especially now that it’s a damn hashtag). Singling out a kid as an unstable, dangerous freak from whom you must protect yourself — or, to quote Mr. Inspiration up there, “could likely be our next shooter” — can be just alienating as ignoring him in the first place.

Reach out.

The freak-singling-out is actually something that’s coming from both sides. On the “walk up” side, you have people saying, “We must placate the dangerous freaks so they won’t shoot up our schools!” And on the “don’t walk up” side, you have people saying, “Don’t tell my kid to endanger herself by walking up to the dangerous freak!” And all the while, you have some very lonely, unhappy kids who were having a hard enough time of it already before people started demonizing them and using them for political ping pong.

Getting extremely personal here: I know what it’s like to be one of the lonely kids at school. I know what it’s like to have no friends because you’re new in town and all the kids literally have all the friends they want at the moment. I can’t say I know what it’s like to contemplate violence against myself or others, because thankfully, I never got to that point. But to be perfectly honest (and this is the point at which people accuse me of sympathizing with mass shooters, so stop, I don’t, I already said that) I can see how a kid might. It doesn’t even take mental illness. Despair, loneliness, fear, and self-hatred can drive a person to the point where nothing seems to matter anymore, even human life, and kids haven’t yet developed the coping strategies that might help them deal with that.

Actual research bears out that the feelings that drive a teenager to suicide are practically the same as the ones that drive them to commit violence against others — it’s just a matter of whether they direct their feelings inward or outward. And both of those outcomes are tragically and undeniably horrible.

This isn’t “Hey, nice backpack”-level stuff. We can’t put the burden — it is unacceptable to put the burden — on the teenagers to walk up to the kid sitting by himself in the cafeteria and say, “Hey, weirdo, want to sit with us so you won’t shoot up the school someday?” They have things to do, like studying and soccer practice and imploring our legislators to pass sensible gun control laws and not feeling guilty that they are wholly at fault for school shootings because they didn’t invite the quiet kid to Chad’s house party.

Do the freaking work for once, grownups. Instead of encouraging kids to stay put and be quiet and maybe, from time to time, throw a bone to the alt-looking kid in the corner of the lunchroom, listen to them, and help them become conscious of the shit that goes on with kids — all kids, too, not just the alt-looking quiet ones. Help them figure out how to deal with their shit. And encourage them to recognize that shit in each other and to be kind, because everyone’s dealing with shit and it’s usually easier to deal with together.

And then encourage them to stand up for their own rights and to be loud and walk out and make their voices heard, because this is their life and they deserve to be heard and “polite” is for black-tie orgies and dinner parties.

One thought on

  1. The final paragraph rocks.

    And, yes, starting fake inclusiveness the day after a shooting is enough to gag a maggot. It’s better to leave outsiders the hell alone than to pretend, then return to clique, ridicule the freak, and simultaneously have clique or clueless teacher use the fakery for a college/employment reference.

    Even so, isn’t inclusiveness what feminism and progressive politics is all about? Some serious focus on this subject is long overdue.

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