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March Head of School Letter: The Optimism and Activism of Youth

Friday, March 2, 2018

Part of the GUS mission is to “encourage children to… act responsibly in our community and in the world.” We don’t do that by promoting particular political positions, but we do push children to tackle authentic challenges. Lower school’s FleX Week and upper school X-blocks are examples of how we provide students with opportunities to do that. In their recently presented White Shirt Projects, several eighth graders chose to voice concerns about the world they are inheriting. Liam Kirwin’s piece is a wooden gun on which he nailed 98 pairs of shoes. His accompanying text explains, “In America, 98 people are killed by guns each day…. When I saw this statistic, I couldn’t believe it…. and I knew I had to create a piece of art that was very emotionally moving.” (Read Liam's essay and view the project.)

I am always moved and inspired by the optimism and activism of youth. Children often see the world in terms of what is fair and just. We sometimes dismiss their black and white views as simplistic or naive, but they’re often right. They lean into challenges relentlessly exactly because they don’t know “better.” World-weary adults can learn something from their perseverance.

So, when I heard that survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were planning to confront lawmakers at the state capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, my first reaction was “maybe the kids can bring a change when the adults couldn’t.” No matter your position on gun control, we can all see that over and over, children have died when they shouldn’t have. The tragedies have to stop. And perhaps the solution rests on the raised voices of the real victims catalyzing the moment.

Think of the changes accomplished over fifty years ago by the Civil Rights Movement. The leaders were in their early thirties; the mass of protestors much younger. If you look carefully at many of the pictures of who was marching, who was arrested, and who took the greatest risks, it was often young people the same age as and just a little older than GUS students. Remember the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963. It was kids in front of the hoses.

Fast forward to GUS in 1985. Second graders wrote letters to US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about nuclear disarmament. “If they get rid of the bombs together,” wrote GUS student Nicholas Chafe, “maybe they could trust each other.” The leaders received the letters and held them at a conference in Geneva. By the time those students graduated from GUS, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had collapsed. Perhaps the straightforward words from GUS students played some small part in those watershed events.

The other day, I was struck by an observation made by another GUS student. Considering the responses to the Florida tragedy, GUS alum Anthony Atamanuik ‘90, a writer for The President Show, tweeted “I’m so impressed with all of the teenagers and young people who have been more articulate, fair and logical than any adults on the matter of Gun Control and Assault Weapon bans. The stereotype of self involved youth was shattered this week.” I like to believe that Atamanuik’s acknowledgment of the authority and value in the voices of our youth, echoing as it does our own philosophy, owes some inspiration to his experience at GUS.

At GUS, we never underestimate the power of kids to change the world. We carefully build the skills they need to do so, and we help students authentically engage in questions that matter to them. Sometimes those questions relate to the small world of the classroom. Other times, they remind us all of what challenges we must face and overcome.

40+Forward,

David Liebmann
Head of School