The Student Teachers

The teenagers from Stoneman Douglas are fearlessly reimagining how to effect change in the Trump era.

Lorenzo Prado stands at a podium with fellow survivors and family members behind him.
Lorenzo Prado, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks during a news conference Wednesday in Tallahassee, Florida, with fellow survivors, as the students urge Florida state legislators to change gun laws, following last week’s mass shooting on their campus.
Colin Hackley/Reuters

In one short week, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have modeled power, eloquence, truth-telling, and hope. Because America seethes with dead-eyed monsters, they are being decried by lunatics as “crisis actors,” the tools of George Soros, and FBI plants. Despite the fact that these young people are now quite literally contending with death threats and mockery, as well as slammed doors, they are organized and organizing and we should all be taking notes.

I understand the twin temptations to shelter them from what’s to come and to lecture them about the ways they may be doing it wrong. But I, for one, have found myself humbled to near-silence by these brave teenagers, and not just because they are media savvy and seemingly without fear. They are extraordinary. With each spin of the news cycle, these students are offering a lesson for all of us about what protests can look like, and how we can reimagine social justice, in the Trump era.

These kids aren’t naïve. They are just better at this than we are. Here are a few of their insights:

1. Give Donald Trump Precisely 5 Percent of Your Mental Energy

These students aren’t wasting their time and energy on the president. Outside a handful of tweets on the day of the shootings, and a line or two in speeches and television appearances, the student protesters are modeling how to essentially ignore Donald Trump. They have no interest in talking to him or even about him. They have internalized the lesson that he is a symptom of the problem but unworthy of credit or blame. I suspect that if the rest of us ignored the president half as ably as they have, we’d all have vastly more emotional energy for the fights that really do matter.

2.   Don’t Waste Time Fighting People Who Don’t Share Your Values and Goals

The Stoneman Douglas students don’t seem to be wasting their time debating or negotiating with the gun lovers on the other side. They are simply working to get gun legislation passed, to raise awareness, and to energize other young people. As someone who has devoted the greater part of the past year to an intramural media debate about whether to give up completely on the other side or to strive to change hearts and minds, it’s refreshing to see that this doesn’t really matter. Stoneman Douglas can’t be bothered with David Brooks. Endless progressive debate over engagement with opponents or the lack thereof and the complex moral nuance of allyship is a luxury these kids cannot afford and aren’t bothered by. Good for them. They have work to do. If Wednesday night’s CNN town hall proved anything, it was that the National Rifle Association and GOP senators literally have no answers for them. They aren’t wasting time on gentle persuasion. They know when they are being lied to.

3. They Don’t Seem Hellbent on Having Leaders

While a handful of students clearly took the helm in the immediate aftermath of the shooting—including Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky—they have been joined in recent days by Alfonso Calderon, Sarah Chadwick, Jaclyn Corin, and others. Together, they rotate on and off the cable shows; they march on Tallahassee, Florida; and they seem utterly content sharing the spotlight. I’ve yet to get the sense that this shared duty makes them nervous and very much suspect that it gives them huge comfort. I don’t know if 17 years old is pre– or post–monomaniacal egoism, but it’s actually refreshing to see these young people—of all genders and races and sexual orientations—bolstering and supporting one another.

4. They Expect to Win

The adults forgot to tell the kids at Stoneman Douglas that they can’t win against the NRA. As Alec MacGillis suggested last week, decades of demoralized fatalism have allowed progressives to persuade themselves that the NRA and Republican interests are too powerful to overcome, causing liberals to give up the fight before it begins. But no one shared this received wisdom with Emma Gonzalez. “If you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something,” she said last weekend. That may sound naïve to an older generation of progressives, but it’s also the only possible starting point for changing the terms of the debate. I, for one, am grateful to be reminded of its essential truth.

Conservatives prefer their victims silent and passive. When they start to actually evince anger, they are denounced as either lying fabricators (like Rob Porter’s former wives) or “crisis actors” (like the students at Stoneman Douglas High). Unless you are calling for more cops, more guns, more walls, more prisons, and more punishment, you are a nuisance to be derided and denied. And that’s the beauty of the Parkland kids. They don’t care. We scoff that theirs is a generation raised on reality shows, Instagram, and YouTube, but they are more aware of what is real and what is fake than the adults around them. Far from acting, or ritualized performance, these students have veered so far from any received post-tragedy script that, one week after the shooting, they are still dominating the news cycle. This is what being awake and alive and human and compassionate actually looks like. Pitting all that against Dana Loesch’s hard, shiny little NRA talking points reveals the made-for-cable fakery we’ve bought into en masse.

The kids of Stoneman Douglas really don’t much care what this president thinks, or what the NRA thinks, or even what we in the media think. The central mistake we have made this past week is trying to understand how this vast army of eloquent, purposeful, and clear-eyed students has been all-but-invisible to us until now. The better lesson we can take from them is that, thankfully, we have been almost entirely invisible to them. They are unconstrained by our norms and unmoved by our plight, and not really all that interested in our corny media tropes about childhood, suffering, and power. Good for them. It’s about time.

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Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.