Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lessons from Protesting

photo CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 www.foundsf.org

As I watch the activity on campuses around the US on #NationalWalkoutDay, I'm vividly reminded of my own experience as a student growing up in the last great era of student protest.

In 1968 I was in sixth grade at Mar Vista Elementary in Los Angeles. 1968 was a remarkable, violent, turbulent, divided year, not just in the US but notably in Mexico and much of Europe. I'm the oldest in my family, but I had friends with brothers and sisters at UCLA, Venice High, and other centers of protest - as well as friends with siblings, cousins, and neighbors in the middle of the violence that was the US intervention in Vietnam.

At some point, a group of us at Mar Vista decided we needed to protest. I honestly can't remember what the issue was, but we decided we would occupy the flagpole in front of the school and prevent the flag from being pulled down at the end of the day. As class ended for the day, we assembled in a ring around the flag pole, sat down, and waited.

As I recall, at some point the campus custodian came to furl the flag and found a small group of 10 and 11 year old kids surrounding it and informing him (politely) that they were protesting and that the flag could not be taken down. He probably scratched his head a couple of times and headed to principal's office to get advice and counsel.

Next, our principal Lorna Round came out to talk to us. She asked us calmly what we were doing and we explained the issue and our actions. She listened patiently and respectfully to her students, who were probably confused both about the meaning and means we had chosen to protest. She was not patronizing, but did inform us that the custodian couldn't go home until the flag was down, so she was hopeful that we could wrap up the protest before too long.

So we sat and maybe sang a song or chanted something, then got up and headed home.

You could say that this was just an act of entitled children (which we mostly were) playing at protest, and you'd be right. But it also taught us that if we spoke up, there were people who would listen. I was also taught by Mrs. Round that respect is the cornerstone of civil society, and that children have ideas and rights, and deserve to be heard. I remember this action more vividly than any civics lessons or lecture on the First Amendment.

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