Learning together

On the first day of school in the fall of 2016, a young boy waved to the crossing guard as he hurried to school. She grinned and waved back as she made sure traffic would stop.

“I like your T-shirt!” she called after him. “It’ll start some good conversations today!”

The shirt expressed support for a U.S. presidential candidate. Judging by the results of the school’s mock election later in the fall, this student’s preference in the election put him in a very small minority in the school. Asking him to discuss his preference was a tall order.

Later, in the spring, two Mount Desert Island towns were debating “sanctuary community” resolutions, nonbinding statements expressing a desire to be welcoming communities. The discussion found its way into some elementary school classrooms, where students made posters about the pros and cons of “sanctuary cities” and immigration policies.

Concern from parents about the posters and the discussion came up at a school board meeting. As long as it’s balanced, and as long as it’s age-appropriate, everyone agreed, it’s good for students and teachers to discuss current events.

But the conversation stopped short of addressing, or even naming, the basic tension: How can we expect kids to calmly, openly and respectfully debate these hot-button issues when most adults don’t feel able to?

It’s not surprising that some adults, as word spread about the peaceful student protests Thursday, suspected someone had put the kids up to it. But it appears no one did. Adults helped get the word out, but the students had the idea, made the signs and did the talking.

When the high school principal and superintendent said they were proud of the students, they weren’t taking sides. They are proud of the kids for their empathy, for the dignified way they conducted themselves and for their willingness to get involved in public life.

In asking constituents for their thoughts about policy changes in response to school shootings, Rep. Brian Hubbell wrote on his Facebook page Monday, “I’m hoping not to generate a predictable online debate.” Instead, he issued an invitation, especially to “responsible, experienced and compassionate gun owners”: “I’d like to sit down with you and talk about solutions.”

We’re all going to learn together how to speak about this — adults, including teachers and parents, and youngsters alike. But we must begin.

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