It wasn’t about guns. It wasn’t about being angry, or being scared or taking a break from class. It was about respect.
“I just wanted to show my respect for those (Parkland) students,” said 14-year-old Gonzalo Pizano, as he walked away from a Riverbank High School commemoration for the 17 Parkland, Fla., students and staff who were murdered exactly one month ago.
“I’m really sad,” said Simorat Kaur, a quiet 18-year-old. “I wanted to show my respect.”
“They needed to be shown respect,” said Jose Flores, another Riverbank 14-year-old.
In how they showed their respect Wednesday during National Walkout Day, the Riverbank students have earned ours.
So have the students at Modesto’s Johansen and Ceres and Turlock’s Pitman high schools, along with students across the county and nation. What they’re doing has the capacity to change the dialogue in our country. We should be grateful.
Daryl Camp, superintendent of Riverbank Unified School District, told Bee reporter Deke Farrow that he saw the walkout movement as a learning opportunity. Instead of denouncing the walkout or trying to intimidate students into not participating, he recognized this as an opportunity to teach a lesson far greater than any found in a textbook. Camp was exactly right. It was a “teachable moment.”
But it was the students doing the teaching.
As rain spit from a gray sky, all 690 Riverbank High students gathered in the gymnasium to talk about bullying, compassion and taking care of each other. Then, those who didn’t want to take part in the National Walk Out were excused.
Roughly 570 remained, sitting in complete silence. No giggles, wisecracks, horseplay or even smirks for 17 minutes. The occasional creaking of a bleacher as someone shifted weight could be heard throughout the gym. Even the shutter on a reporter’s camera sounded like an intrusion. This silence was almost sacred.
The faces of the Parkland victims were projected onto a wall, each accompanied by a few words from those who knew them:
“Inspired others …”
“Bright future ahead on the trombone …”
“Loved by many …”
“Goofy and funny and super sweet …”
A few Riverbank students hung their heads, or covered their eyes. Most fixed their gaze and did not flinch. They watched, clear-eyed and focused. Emotional, but not sloppy. Determined, but not antagonistic.
I asked teacher Lezlie Acker if teachers or staff had helped with the presentation; if perhaps some national organization had provided the slides.
“No, students did all of this,” she said, a little incredulous at the question. “It was our leadership and drama students. And this was all their idea, too.”
Following the Parkland victims’ faces came images of victims of other school shootings – Sandy Hook; Marysville, Wash.; Aztec, N.M.; South Carolina, Nevada, Texas and more – but not nearly all of them. There wouldn’t be time to commemorate all of the dead from America’s many school shootings.
Did the Riverbank students recognize themselves in those photos? Were they thinking, “There but for the grace of God …”?
Students everywhere are aware of the frequency of school shootings. That’s why tens of thousands made their voices heard Wednesday – even through silence.
Riverbank’s students weren’t carrying signs or demanding gun bans. But they are activated.
A few trolls have ridiculed them, letting misguided partisanship or their own fevered paranoia blind them. But those who have responded to The Bee’s coverage with vitriol didn’t see what we saw in Riverbank or at Johansen, or Pitman.
We doubt they’ve ever seen a school after it’s been shot up, with students face down and first-responders rushing in, praying to find only survivors.
After so many school shootings, many have forgotten the alienated man with a police record and a fascination for guns and white supremacy who attacked a Stockton school with an assault rifle in 1989. But those who arrived at Cleveland School will never forget seeing the five dead children, the 32 wounded.
Now, active-shooter drills are part of education. Teachers show kindergartners how to hide, second-graders where to run, and junior high students how to slam shut the doors. High schoolers must know how to evacuate, hands held high so they won’t be mistaken for a shooter.
They call it ALICE training – Alert, Lock down, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. All schools should have a version. The Parkland kids had been through such drills; if they hadn’t, perhaps more would have died.
It is this shared reality that has created a bond among teens across America. A bond stronger than school rules or veiled threats from doctrinaire administrators. That’s why tens of thousands walked out of their classrooms. It’s why hundreds more gathered outside the White House. It’s why, from Maine to Hawaii, politicians, parents, peace officers and pastors joined them.
Few could travel to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to join in, but many – like the kids in Riverbank – chose to stand with their peers. Showing respect ... while earning ours.