The voice I keep hearing in my head these days belongs to a high school girl. “Midterms,” she is saying. “Midterms. Midterms.”
This girl was not fretting about exams, the way we used to do in high school. She was afraid of getting killed, and she was talking, urgently, about elections. She was a member of a panel I went to hear last spring: students talking about gun violence. Seven were from local high schools – Cambridge, Somerville — and the other three, including this girl, were from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., site of the shooting last February that killed 17 people and wounded 17 others.
The students sat on a stage at the Cambridge Public Library, talking about terror and rage in a way that was all the more powerful for being utterly poised, logical, and purposeful. “The reality is that children are dying in our schools, and that’s not a normal thing,” one student said.
“This is going to keep happening until we implement common-sense gun laws,” said another. “Our legislators need to know that they work for us.”
A Stoneman Douglas student: “It’s a single issue for me. If someone is putting power and money ahead of my life, then that’s going to determine how I cast my vote.”
The discussion touched on the broad array of issues connected to gun violence: school shootings, but also domestic violence, gang violence, suicide, police brutality. The students talked about strategy and tactics. “We encourage everyone to have discussions with people whom they adamantly disagree with,” one said. “Listening to other perspectives is how people learn, how systems change —”
“— and also,” another student added, “how you learn to strengthen your own arguments.”
As an example: “If I bring up banning military-style weapons, someone will point to one particular shooting and say, ‘Well, but that wouldn’t have stopped this one.’ And I can say, ‘Yeah, but it would have stopped that one.’ You can’t just focus on one thing. You focus on a lot of things, and over time that will change this.”
What I got, listening to the students, was a clear sense that the adults had let them down. Not all adults — as one of the Stoneman Douglas students said, “Our teachers literally died trying to protect us” — but the American electorate as a whole. “If we’re old enough to be in the line of fire, we’re old enough to be upset about it,” one student said.
Growing up in America today, seeing your school shot up, as the Stoneman Douglas kids had, or wondering if your school or your synagogue or church or mosque might be next, you lose your innocence. You don’t assume that you will be cared for, or that you will be safe. You keep seeing the adjective “another” attached to the words “school shooting.” You keep believing — until you stop believing — that surely this one will be the one that makes people say, “Enough.”
And yet these kids still had a different kind of innocence: a fierce, energetic faith in their own ability to change things. “We’re the next generation of voters,” they kept saying. Some of them are old enough to vote already. Some aren’t — “but you can talk to your parents about how they’re planning to vote. You can give rides to the polls. And even if you’re too young for a license, you can help find rides for people.”
I’ll be thinking of those students when I go to vote on Tuesday: the ones who are too young to vote or drive but not too young to worry about getting shot and not too young to become politically active. I’ll be thinking of them, and I’ll be thinking of the girl from Parkland, Fla., who kept saying, “Midterms. Midterms. Midterms.”Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.