By Zachary Milewicz
At 10:00 am yesterday morning, the classrooms and hallways of Byram Hills High School emptied as students and teachers walked out. As the hundreds of individuals gathered in front of the school, they were joining students and teachers of approximately 3,000 schools across the country. This nationwide movement developed in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which occurred one month ago yesterday and took 17 innocent lives.
The walkout lasted 17 minutes to commemorate the 17 lives taken at MSD. After participants gathered in front of the school, senior Alexandra Brocato announced that we would be loud and heard, to which those surrounding her said in unison, “Never Again”—the slogan and hashtag that has seen its exponential rise over the past month.
Following Brocato’s introduction, senior Will Bernstein announced the names of the 17 individuals killed, as 17 orange balloons were released into the sky.
The hundreds gathered then stood still for 17 seconds of silence. Senior Kristina Chevian walked out of her fourth-period class to participate. Chevian recalls, “During the 17 seconds of silence, there were a million thoughts racing through my head, but one more important than the rest was, ‘We need to continue to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting by making sure that this never happens again.'” This is likely the thought that resonated most with participants throughout the duration of the walkout. Ensuring another school shooting does not happen again was another major message conveyed by those who spoke.
Senior Bobby Lehman, who was a lead organizer of the walkout, was the next to speak. He began by thanking those before him for walking out. Lehman proceeded to emphasize that we have seen enough: “We have seen enough of guns tearing apart families and making children scared to come to school every day. We have seen enough of parents crying on national television, unsure if they’ll ever see their child again. We have seen enough of all of this.” His speech then took a turn, advising listeners: “we can change this. We can move the country forward and shift the discussion to keep Americans safe.” Lehman recapped the notable actions taken in the last month by survivors of the Parkland shooting and said, “By being here today, we are already joining them and doing our part to make a difference and force our politicians to notice the movement of an entire generation. We are here today to honor the victims of not only the Parkland shooting but every single shooting that has taken place in the United States. We will not let these victims die in vain.” Lehman then struck both the teachers and students as he noted that the generation of the teachers has been called “the most politically apathetic in U.S. history,” and he explained that experts have signaled the students’ generation to follow. Lehman refuted this point, arguing that “by the hundreds gathered here,” we are proving them wrong, and “We are part of history…2018 will be the year that major gun reform is passed because of student activists like us.” His speech ended with the powerful phrase “Never again,” to which listeners applauded him.
From Lehman, the microphone was passed to junior Zach Cogan. Cogan pleaded, “The victims are not just names you read in a newspaper or hear on television.” Cogan then captured the attention of the entire crowd, explaining, “On February 14th, I lost a member of my family. He may not have been blood-related, but nonetheless, he was family. I met Scott Beigel at Camp Starlight almost ten years ago…” In addition to working at Camp Starlight, Mr. Beigel was a teacher at MSD killed during the shooting as he worked to successfully to save the lives of students. Beigel was the impetus for Cogan’s involvement. Cogan explained to me after his speech, “I spoke because I wanted to ensure that my counselor Scott Beigel was given the respect that he deserves as a hero and as a person who has greatly influenced my life by being like family.” Cogan further explained, “I also spoke because I believe in what we are doing. Common sense gun control policy needs to be introduced immediately. I am tired of hearing the atrocities on the news. I want to make a difference in a movement that is not politically driven, but morally driven.” This idea—that the movement is morally driven—was emphasized by Cogan following his recount of interactions with Scott Beigel. Cogan reasoned that we must take action because that is common sense, “People should be able to go to school and not feel vulnerable. It is common sense…We are the leaders of tomorrow so let’s let our voices be heard so lawmakers will use common sense.”
Senior Rebecca Freedman read a piece written by Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jaime Guttenberg, one of the 17 victims. Rebecca Freedman also thanked Julia Zimmerman for passing out orange ribbons. Zimmerman said of her actions, “I realized not many people had orange so I ran to Target [the night before] to find ribbon and safety pins. I think that distributing them to people who may not have had any orange, which is an important color to this cause, made people feel more included and involved in the movement.”
The next speaker was senior Jackson Pinsky, who was a lead organizer not only in the BHHS walkout but is also a leader of the Facebook page and movement “New York Students for Gun Safety.” Pinsky’s powerful speech began by instructing the following: “I’d like you all to think for a moment about the person that you love most in this world. Imagine the feeling you have when you are with this person. Now imagine this person being taken from you. Imagine that you will never again be able to see their smile, to hear their voice, or to watch them laugh. Imagine that one day for no rhyme or reason and through no fault of their own, this person is killed as a direct result of gun violence. Imagining this is not an easy thing to do. The mere thought of losing someone that we truly love in this way makes our stomachs turn, our heads ache, our palms sweat.” And at these words, students and teachers experienced exactly that: turned stomachs, headaches, and sweaty palms.
Pinsky then recited anecdote, reflecting back to that February day one month ago. Pinsky recalled, “I received a text from a friend of mine of a video that a student took during the shooting that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In that video, it struck me how loud the gunshots were, how red the blood on the floor was, and how panicked the students sounded as they huddled together in a classroom fearing for their lives. However, what struck me more than anything else were the desks in the classroom. Through the screaming and the gunshots and the blood, what really caught my eye was that this high school, the one getting shot up a thousand miles away from mine had the same exact desks that we have here. Suddenly, it was easy to imagine this tragedy taking place here, and I thought scaredly. From there, it was one small step to imagining it taking place at the school where my eleven-year-old sister attends.” The crowd was completely engrossed, and Pinsky ended his speech by urging others: “whenever you find yourself lacking courage, remember above all else what is really most important to you. Imagine that person. Imagine that feeling that you have when you’re with them. And then imagine what it would be like to lose them. Then think, what can I do to make sure this never happens. And then go do it.”
The final speaker was senior Jonathan Freedman. Jonathan explained to me, “I’ve always been very passionate about gun control, and now, more than ever, I feel obligated to make my voice heard and do everything I can to incite discernible change. Jackson Pinsky and Bobby Lehman, the main organizers of the walkout…asked me if I’d like to be involved, and I jumped at the opportunity.” His passion for this issue of urgency came across clearly through his words. He asked everyone to look around and appreciate what they are a part of, noting, “This, this walkout, and recent and future demonstrations on this scale are not normal. This doesn’t happen every day. This is special. The unfortunate implication of that fact is that it comes from something else that isn’t normal.” He furthered, “So I stand here today to firmly remind all of you that what has been going on for now decades in the United States of America is not normal. So let’s not allow it to be. We are here to honor and pay homage to the 17 victims of the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, but our thoughts and prayers mean nothing without action.”
What type of action? Freedman provided some ideas, urging the activists involved: “contact your local congressman, join more demonstrations, post and share things on social media, and let your beliefs be known to anyone and everyone who will listen. Your voice matters.” Begin by sharing this article. Let those around you know what you were part of yesterday—history.
Jonathan Freedman also reinforced and echoed the message of previous speakers, including Cogan, by saying, “common sense gun control is just common sense. Never again,” and later told me, “I think we’ve all had enough of the constant suffering we’ve witnessed and the lack of action from our legislators.”
Pinsky concluded the walkout by thanking everyone, but he noted an important caveat: “It’s like we said though. This doesn’t do anything if none of us take this and learn from it and actually go out and do stuff. You can write to your congressmen, you can call them. We’re gonna be making a club, we’re gonna be making posters, writing letters, sending emails, all that stuff. If you want to get involved, we’d really love to have you.”
While more action must follow yesterday’s walkout, the demonstration was a huge success, as shown by the hundreds involved. Zimmerman said in reflection of the event, “I think the walkout was successful in garnering people’s attention about the movement, and I hope that it will inspire students to further pursue activism.” Chevian explained, “The walkout made me feel hopeful. It reassured me that we can and will make a change.” Junior Renner Kwittken, who was involved in leading the walkout, said, “I was extremely happy with how the walkout turned out. The number of people that came was truly inspiring. Others and I were worried that some people wouldn’t take the whole thing seriously and not pay attention during the 17 minutes, but the amount of support shown for both the deceased students as well the community was amazing and brings me hope that we are going to be the generation that changes the status quo.” Kwittken’s impression of the walkout was consistent with that of Cogan, who said, “The event went better than expected. All of the speakers were great, and the support we got from our classmates and teachers was amazing. We all feel that it is a step in the right direction.”
These feelings of success were unanimous across all participants. Jonathan Freedman said, “I think it could not have gone better. Everyone who came out was so respectful. It seemed that all my peers out there with us truly believed in what brought us there. What we were able to be a part of yesterday was something special; it was history.” Congratulations Byram for being part of this history.
“Enough is enough.”