You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Derek Pearce, James Madison High School, Brooklyn, NY
American historian and activist Howard Zinn, who passed in 2010, released his memoirs in 1994 under the title “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”. While I am sure Zinn’s words are open to interpretation, I have always taken them as a challenge: to what extent are you willing to allow history to unfold around you before taking action? For Zinn, these words were used to confront his students about their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Then, like now, there is a serious debate in teaching circles about how involved educators should be when social issues are discussed in the classroom. “How can you,” one might ask, “tell your students what you believe without influencing them?” The answer, of course, is that you can’t. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t.
In the wake of the Parkland Shooting, I temporarily put my freshman global history curriculum on hold. Instead of examining the historical contributions of the 14th century West African emperor Mansa Musa, we spent several days analyzing the details of the Parkland Shooting, the virtues of the Second Amendment, and the state of gun control in the United States. Musa, I assured myself, would understand. During the discussions that inevitably follow these sorts of lessons, my students predictably asked me to weigh-in on the debate. What I told them was that I supported the common sense measures proposed by the student survivors of the Parkland shooting. That I had read dozens of sources, listened to hours of news radio during my commute, read the online platform created by the Parkland survivors, weighed the evidence, and had decided that I agreed. For the homework assignment that night they had to find the website created by the Parkland students and write a response to their simple three-point petition letter. The following day, my students arrived to find the classroom arranged in a large circle with only a single question written on the board: “Should we march?” I was referring to the “March For Our Lives” event being held on the west side of Manhattan the following day. In each of my five classes, a gradual consensus emerged over the course of the forty-five minute discussion. Some were opposed to the Second Amendment and some were not. Some wanted to ban all privately owned guns and some did not. Some thought the march would be effective and some did not. But everyone agreed that the status quo was not tenable. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done.
I ended that class with a challenge that I think Howard Zinn would have appreciated. I told my students that I would be waiting on the corner of Columbus Avenue and 72nd Street from 8AM to 8:30 AM to march in support of the petition created by the Parkland students. I then asked, “Would anyone care to join me?” Of the dozens of students that agreed, only four showed up. Alas, social activists or not, they are still very much thirteen and fourteen year olds. But the four who did show up arrived with homemade signs, orange t-shirts, and painted faces. They marched and chanted and took pictures and posted on Snapchat. They met other high school students and debated policy on the streets. They laughed and joked and left the event an hour early to eat fast food. But they marched.
I don’t know if the lessons influenced their opinions. I don’t know how much the Parkland Shooting affected them personally or whether or not they really care. I don’t know if any of them would have marched if I hadn’t challenged them. I don’t know if they will continue to be activists or if they just wanted to get some good pictures for Instagram. But I do know one thing: the train is moving, and I am definitely not neutral.