Woog’s World / Westport’s youth have raised their voices
Last week, Westport dodged a bullet.
Heightened vigilance since the most recent school shootings in Florida, an overheard threat, a report by a student to Staples High administrators, rapid response by the school and police, a quickly unfolding scenario involving the superintendent, transportation officials and many others, and calm, mature reactions by nearly 2,000 teenagers all combined to ensure that “Staples” did not join the national shorthand of tragedies, alongside “Marjory Stoneman Douglas,” “Sandy Hook” and “Columbine.”
And yet. And yet. And yet: wecamethisclose to horror.
In the days after the Parkland disaster, politicians equivocated. They offered their usual thoughts and prayers — or, more truthfully, platitudes and evasiveness. Guns were still not the issue, they insisted. It’s really mental health. Or video games. Or just bad luck that the United States endures mass killings on a frighteningly regular basis, while every other First World nation has avoided them for decades.
The National Rifle Association fired back, as usual. With an arrogance born of years of bullying — and buying — office-holders, the tax-exempt, nonprofit “social welfare” organization emerged from its obligatory few days of silence to blast even the mildest measure of gun safety as an assault on the right of every American to own a high-powered killing machine.
This time, there was pushback. Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, two of the nation’s leading gun sellers, reconsidered. Airlines, car rental agencies, insurance firms — all announced plans to step away from the NRA stranglehold. Even President Trump suddenly flip-flopped on what could, and should, be done.
And yet. And yet. And yet — that’s not the biggest story in the continuing, evolving gun safety debate.
None of those changes happened because a major company, or the president, woke one morning and suddenly got religion. They happened because America’s teenagers — boys and girls too young to vote, too young to buy alcohol, but not too young to buy a weapon of mass destruction (or be murdered by one) — took control of the national agenda.
The voices from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were as passionate, articulate, loud and clear. Strongly, unflinchingly, combining the idealism of youth with the reality of our broken political process, youngsters who had seen the effects of violence far more closely than most adults took up this important fight. They did not wait to be told what to do, or how to do it. They did not take “no,” “wait” or “but” for answers. They led the nation, and they did it with grace and courage.
In the wake of the Florida teenagers’ crusade, their peers in Westport spoke out too. In classrooms, on social media and local blogs, they talked honestly about their own lives and fears. Several Staples students know Marjory Stoneman Douglas kids — our communities are similar — but whether they had a direct connection or not, they described what it’s like to live in a wealthy community, in one of the most prosperous countries on earth, surrounded by unimaginable privilege, and yet be scared every day, of the present and the future.
And then. And then. And then — the abstract discussion of guns in schools suddenly became very, very real.
In the aftermath of last week’s near-tragedy, our town’s teenagers spoke even more loudly and clearly. Going through what others have endured — texting their parents that they’re OK; checking up on friends and siblings; being escorted through the parking lot by police —brought this realization home, with stunning clarity: No place in America is immune to gun violence.
So Westport’s youth — in middle school, as well as high school — have raised their voices. They are telling their parents, teachers, school administrators and anyone else who will listen that they are no longer willing to live in a land where politicians pontificate, delay and refuse to pass legislation; where their parents don’t demand action, and where they learn in school about the political process, but are not encouraged to participate directly.
It will not be easy. Adults will scoff, and tell these teenagers they are being idealistic, naïve, gullible and worse. They will hear that they are being duped and controlled by forces they don’t understand. They will write letters, make speeches and testify, and see their efforts fall short — perhaps even fail.
And yet. And yet. And yet — they will persist. They will take the lessons they have learned, about how to research and analyze an issue; how to craft an argument, and communicate it; how to stand up for their beliefs. They will put those lessons into action.
They’ll do it their way. They’ll do it with power, poise and grace. They’ll do it using tools, like social media, that those of us who are older can’t even conceive of.
The future is in superb hands. The bullet we dodged last week did not kill our teenagers. It only made them stronger.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.