By Louisa Benatovich
On Feb. 14, a lone gunman opened fire on a school in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen innocent students were killed; 14 were injured; millions became angry. In the following weeks, student-led protests were held around the country, drawing national media attention. The homemade signs waved above heads, the rhythmic chants, and the passionate speeches all broadcast one message: change has to be made in America. This is a call to disarm.
On March 14, one month after the massacre, a New York statewide school walkout was planned. The idea was simple: at 10 a.m., students would leave their classrooms for 17 minutes, a minute for every life lost. Many schools planned to participate. Ellicottville was one of them…
At 9:58, we checked our phones (the school’s ancient analog clocks were all behind due to daylight savings). At 10, we left. The teacher continued to instruct, having been directed to do so by ECS principal, Erich Ploetz. “I believe part of our core mission is to teach students how to express themselves, so early in the planning phase of the walkout I determined I was not interested in disciplinary consequences,” Ploetz said. “Logistically, this was a student-led event, so ECS administration wanted to take as small a role as possible while providing adequate safety measures and supervision. With a sign-out sheet and passes back to class, we felt this was an appropriate manner in which to keep track of student attendance. I was interested in learning as much as I could from our student body, particularly those choosing to take a stand in the name of school safety, so an optional survey was designed.”
These surveys asked pointed questions like “What made you decide to participate in this walkout?” and “What statement are you trying to make?”
While filling out our surveys in the cafeteria, we were accosted by fellow students. “You’re not making any difference!” they yelled, a room’s width to protect them. “You don’t know what you’re protesting.” I brushed it off, proclaiming my First Amendment rights. (They feel quite good to say aloud.)
More students joined the throng, and we made our way outside. Our superintendent, Bob Miller, and Cattaraugus County Sheriff Deputy Joseph Yerpe stood watching over us. Our safety was their priority. I looked around the group. It was a mixed bunch, ranging from middle-schoolers to seniors. Many were laughing and talking, not understanding the purpose of our civil disobedience. “Be quiet, everyone,” a voice cut through the snow. It was a student. “We need to be silent for the lives lost.” The crowd quieted, but I still heard whispers. I knew that many of these students only came because of their friends; they came to get out of class. A semi-circle of students stood at the edge of the crowd, holding hands in solidarity. Their eyes were closed, mourning. Another student cried in her hands, hiding. The silent of us understood. The others, huddled in their micro-groups, whispered and giggled. I was sure I’d see some pictures surface on social media later that day, perhaps pictures of their feet with an unspecific caption like “Making a Difference *heart emoji*.”
Were we making a difference?
In the grand scheme of things, 35 high school students standing in the snow for 17 minutes does very little. It doesn’t bring back the lost Floridians, it doesn’t change gun control laws, and it certainly doesn’t provide the kind of help to stop every single potential school shooter. I’m sure we were laughed at, standing there. I can just imagine it: “What do those kids think they are doing?”
We are the generation of the selfie stick, the generation of Snapchat and Instagram, the generation too lost in their iPhones to see the world around us. Right? Wrong. This walkout was to commemorate those that died, yes, but it was also to support students just like us trying to make change. We are the discounted youth, subjected to ageism and criticism. We are chastised for doing nothing, and admonished for doing something. It’s a catch-22, and that’s excluding the peers that don’t agree with our views.
This walk-out wasn’t meant to change the world; it was meant to be a catalyst. Its goal was to inspire action, whether it’s writing to your senator or making a connection with the kid that sits all alone at lunch. I chose not to quote students in this article; I didn’t want anyone to be singled out. This isn’t about who you vote for or what you believe in. This isn’t about one person. This is about making our futures, and those of the ones we love, safe. I believe, perhaps too optimistically, that we can find a solution as a school, as a town, as a country. I believe change can