Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

An Open Letter to My Daughter on the Eve of Her First Protest

Created: 13 March, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
5 min read

Dear Clarissa,

Well, Sweetie, it’s almost here. Tomorrow is the day that you join young people all over the country and walk out of your classes for 17 minutes to protest the prevalence of gun violence in our society and to honor the 17 lives lost one month ago in Parkland, Florida. As someone who has done a fair bit of protesting in his life, I have a few pieces of advice that, like all of my advice, you are free to do with as you choose.

First, though, let me say that I am very proud of you. It is important to believe in things, and it is important to act on those beliefs. I know that you have agonized over whether or not to break the school’s rules. And your principal’s announcement yesterday that students who protested would receive demerits only made you feel more anxious.

As a college administrator myself, I can tell you with great confidence that this will not hurt your chances of being accepted to the colleges you want to attend -- but even if it did, I would support your choice to be involved in this action.

Not only should you not expect your school to excuse your absence from class; you should not want them to. If they were to make this an excused absence, it would not be a protest; it would be a field trip -- a regular part of the curriculum that, while valuable in some ways, would lack the social impact of the civil disobedience you will be engaging in.

The power of protests like these lies in the fact that they are not approved. This is what makes them newsworthy. This is what makes them important.

What you will be doing when you walk out of class is telling your school, and the world, that you are willing to accept the consequences of breaking a rule because you believe that there are some things more important than school rules. When you do this, you will be joining a long tradition of civil disobedience that has changed the world at times when nothing else could have.

When you disobey a rule, or a law, and accept the consequences of that disobedience, you are laying your case before the community and letting other people judge the appropriateness of your actions.

Some people will admire you; some people will disagree with you. But they will all be talking about you and what you are doing. And this means that they will be having conversations about guns and school shootings. These conversations matter. The most important thing we have seen in the last month is that when conversations about these things keep happening, opinions change and laws get passed.

I know that this makes you uncomfortable. You are supposed to be uncomfortable. Your job is to make other people more uncomfortable than you are.

I am pretty sure that your principal will be extremely uncomfortable tomorrow. So will your teachers. A lot of parents will be uncomfortable too. And when the footage plays on the news tomorrow night, people in the community will be uncomfortable. Sometimes, this discomfort will manifest itself as criticism of you and your classmates. Criticism hurts, and there is nothing I can say that will make it hurt less.

The extreme discomfort of being criticized--and of not reacting to hate-filled criticism with equally hate-filled responses--is really the most important consequence that you will be called upon to accept tomorrow. Human beings only change when they are uncomfortable. Creating tension is a necessary part of changing the world. But there is no way to create tension without experiencing tension yourself.

This is one of the many nuggets of truth that you will find in Martin Luther King’s magnificent “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote this letter when he and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were in jail for disobeying a judge’s injunction against holding protests or parades.

A number of people who claimed to support the goals of the SCLC criticized them for breaking the law. Dr. King responded with one of the greatest defenses of civil disobedience ever written. In it, he wrote,

I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

And this is what you are going to do tomorrow. You and your classmates are going to create tension in our community. And you are going to join with thousands of young people all over the country to create tension in our nation. Don’t let anybody tell you that this is pointless, or that these kinds of demonstrations don’t do anything productive. The history of our nation, and our world, tells us otherwise.

And don’t you dare let anyone suggest that you are trying to get out of learning your school lessons, because that is just silly. You are going to learn a lot of important things tomorrow -- and they are things that our schools have largely failed to teach.

You are going to learn how to exercise your constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly. You are going to learn how to participate in movements for social change. You are going to learn how to nudge the levers of power that make our democracy work. And you are going to learn how to deal with other people’s criticisms without resorting to violence or anger.

As a father, I could not ask for a more consequential set of lessons to be delivered in any seventeen minutes of your day.

I love you,