I pulled up to the Bullard High School campus a few minutes before 10 on National School Walkout.
The campus was empty, walkways quiet. A few band members were walking into their classroom. I wondered if I’d missed it. Some schools were starting early. The digital marquee in front of the campus lit up: “Gun Violence Prevention ... March 14 ... 10 a.m.”
OK, I’m in the right place.
A bell rang and hundreds of students calmly poured out of their classrooms and seemed to know where they were going. I walked among them with a teacher I recognized from back in the day. We talked about the spring play he put together. Phones and earbuds came out, a whole lot of chatter.
When the first speakers started, I was way in the back and ambient cross talk made it hard to hear. A boy right behind me gave out a loud “Shhhhhhhhhhhh!” I walked past posters covering the cafeteria windows that named and honored each victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre.
Gradually, the crowd got quieter and quieter. I wove through the crowd, moving closer to the front..
Principal Carlos Castillo had just a few comments, telling the crowd that he was “so proud” of his students being so respectful and peaceful in honoring the victims at Parkland, but also taking time to say they are not OK with gun violence.
Later on, he explained that he welcomed the opportunity to help the students to organize their protest by changing the schedule, a simple matter of shaving 3 minutes off of each class. He made the message clear that the topic is not “gun control” but we are all able to agree that “gun violence” is not OK. “There was a lot of learning today and good character building into the students.”
Chris Olson took the microphone and after an introduction, he read the 17 names of the victims in the Parkland, Florida, massacre and added a little information about each one. He had researched them all and knew who had a scholarship to college, who was in ROTC and who was in band. He noted who took a bullet and saved others, who was killed holding open a door for his classmates.
Later he told me he was especially touched by Luke Hoyer, 15. He learned that his mother’s last words to him were “I love you, Lukie Bear.” He had so much empathy for the parents who would never see their children graduate from high school, never see them get married.
“I didn’t want to just read the names,” Chris said. “I wanted it to mean something more.”
An orange balloon was released into a cloudy sky after each person was honored. By the time they were all released, the balloons all hovered together over Bullard.
Chris is a tall junior, 17 years old. He heard about the walkout idea and was immediately drawn to it, he said. He did a deep dive into researching all the victims, and was so touched as each one became more real to him. He was compelled to take action with other students, so he started a sign-up sheet to collect names of other classmates who felt as he did. In short order, he had 300 names.
“There were so many people,” he said, “I though I should take the list to Mr. Castillo, the principal, and he met with me.” He got a warm reception from the school’s top administrator and together they began to put together a plan for what a 17-minute observance could look like at Bullard.
“In the beginning,” Chris said, “some people misunderstood the purpose. They thought it was about guns. It’s not about guns; it’s about gun violence.” The school helped get the word out, always repeating that this was about making kids safe in school and putting an end to gun violence. Notices were sent out to the parents. He had no interest in getting drawn into the adults’ divisive gun debate.
Chris lives with his grandparents in Fresno, Mary and Cecil Yoakum.
He talked with them about his project, he said they knew what he was planning to do and “they were very supportive.”
Well, until last night, when his grandfather died.
“... and Chris, you’re here today?” I asked.
He nodded, looking away. “I did my crying last night,” he said quietly.
Sharon Owens, an English teacher, explains that the English class students were motivated to take action while studying literature around the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, American history and discussing what their rights are, including the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. She was proud of their work.
It was Owens, a former journalist, who persuaded Chris that this was his moment to take a leadership role, even though he describes himself as “not even in leadership,” but “just a student.”
All this in an effort to bring reality to the refrain in an original poem by classmate, Karen Carrillo, which was “This is... never again!”
Gail Marshall is Acting Editor of the editorial pages. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.