The day after first graders, teachers, and administrators were hunted down and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown, I had to return to Darien High School and face my kids. (Like most teachers, I refer to my students as my kids. We feel responsible not just for their education, but for their emotional and physical well-being.) I couldn’t tell my kids that they were safe that day, because teenagers know when you are lying to them. At the time, all I could think to do was answer their questions and remind them that we must all reach out to those students who feel isolated, as if that were enough.
Since Sandy Hook, I have continued to face my kids in the aftermath of every mass shooting: Charleston and Washington D.C. and Orlando and Dallas and Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs. I grew more frustrated after each shooting. I was angry at Congress for refusing to change the laws, but more importantly, I felt suffocated by my own inaction. After the latest shooting, this time at Stoneman Douglas, the person I was most angry with was myself. How was it that I had done nothing actionable? How could I continue to watch the nightly news and do nothing? So I decided to give Congress an ultimatum and put my job on the line.
Since that day in February, I have become an activist. I joined Moms Demand Action and attended a meeting in Stamford; I attended a town hall with Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy in Greenwich; I called representatives in Congress and wrote letters to them explaining that I wanted them to pass common sense gun laws; I marched for my kids in New York City, along with many other teachers; I signed petitions that called for common sense gun laws; I created a Twitter account and started following Everytown for Gun Safety and the Parkland students; I found ways to shop more at Dick’s Sporting Goods after they decided not to sell assault style weapons; and I made sure that none of my retirement funds contain gun stocks.
I’ve never considered myself an activist, but I’ve taught about them for twelve years — people like Alice Paul, Mother Jones, Ron Kovic, and others who worked hard to bring this country closer to its ideals. I’ve always admired them, but I don’t think I truly appreciated the courage required for the actions that they took. They were ordinary Americans who believed so strongly in the stances they held, and felt such a responsibility to their fellow citizens, that they selflessly put everything on the line. I now understand that it is no coincidence that Alice Paul and Ron Kovic never got married or had children. Mother Jones only became an activist after her husband and four children died of a yellow fever epidemic. This was one of their sacrifices. I, on the other hand, have a family, and quickly realized that my responsibility to them meant that inviting publicity and the media would have consequences that I could not control.
What has surprised me more than anything else over the past few months is how many students, parents, and former students have reached out to me to lend their support and share their dismay with our country’s lack of action on gun safety. Many of the parents I spoke with had great ideas for how I could be most effective. One mom explained that if I continued to teach at DHS, I still had two months during the summer to effect change. Another suggested advising students who want to be activists. We talked about voter registration drives and the most effective ways to contact politicians. Still determined to take action against gun violence, I began to reconsider the most effective way for me, given who I am, to be an activist and help make common sense gun laws a national reality.
Whenever students approach me now, they have so many questions. I sometimes have to cajole my students into asking questions during class and regularly plan lessons to spark their curiosity, but here they are, enthusiastic and interested. This is real learning: “Why doesn’t Congress do anything?” “Who is up for reelection in November?” “What are bump stocks?” “Wait — why are those legal?” “How should I get in touch with other students who care about this issue?” One day, a student approached me after class and asked what my goal was. I said that my primary goal was to protect my kids. She replied: “How can you continue to protect us if you walk out and don’t come back?” After she left, I wondered if I had to give up the job that I love — was that the most effective way forward?
A few weeks ago, a former student reminded me of a lesson where students were asked to grapple with the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. After they presented their evidence and argued about the best way forward, they were dismayed to learn about the actual decisions made by the adults. One student wrote: “That was the first time I realized that the people who govern us aren’t always above us.” The voices of teenagers deserve to be heard just as much as ours. Over the past few weeks, I have heard adults say that the voices of teens don’t matter, one even going so far as to say they are not citizens. It can be uncomfortable for adults when teens point out our flaws. But we should take a hard look inward rather than shutting down their voices.
So I will continue to teach at Darien High School and fight alongside my students to do what I have always tried to do as their teacher: give them the tools they need to have their voices heard.
Jennifer Ladd has taught at Darien High School for 12 years. She refers to her students as “my kids.” In February, she spoke with a local newspaper saying she would walk off her job at Darien High School at April 20 if Congress had not passed harsher gun regulations. A group of students did walk out on Friday. Some headed to a Darien train station to participate in a New York City walk out.