One of the first songs most everyone learns is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
It’s a soothing lullaby. Go ahead, hum it to yourself.
Now add these lyrics:
Lock the door
Shut the lights off
Say no more
Go behind the desk
Wait until it’s safe outside
it’s all done
Now it’s time to have
The words, handwritten in multicolor markers, were found last year on a poster hanging on a wall in a kindergarten classroom in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was one teacher’s poignant attempt to help her 5- and 6-year-olds learn to stay calm in an emergency.
The school district’s superintendent and the city mayor supported the teacher, saying that “unfortunately this is the world we live in.”
They weren’t wrong.
Picture all those earnest young faces singing that song as part of a lockdown drill. Imagine their older peers carrying their books in bulletproof backpacks. Recall the lines of terrified students scurrying out of besieged school buildings, hands over their heads.
That’s why America’s youth say school shootings are the nation’s most important issue. Some 68 percent of young people ages 14 to 29 rated school shootings their No. 1 concern, more than any other issue in a study conducted by John Della Volpe, chief executive of public opinion company SocialSphere and director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Runners-up included topics like health care reform, job creation and immigration reform.
Nearly 80 percent also said either they or someone close to them has suffered from mental health issues, which the study linked to the school shootings.
Those of us of a certain age remember hiding under our desks as preparation for when the Russians bombed us. But that was a distant foe and an amorphous fear.
The threat of a school shooting is not so easily dismissed. Those who try expose a stark generational divide. Who are we older Americans to tell our young they have nothing to worry about?
One Ohio State University student in a focus group told Della Volpe, “An older generation would not understand walking into a classroom . . . and thinking, ‘This could be a really easy room for someone to shoot up.’ The same daily weight on an adult’s shoulders over bills or taxes is what children feel about living or dying.”
That doesn’t seem to ebb and flow with the news cycle’s spasms of horrific violence. Kids have been growing up with this since the Columbine High massacre in 1999. Since then, more than 220,000 children at 225 schools have been exposed to gun violence during school hours, according to The Washington Post. That sense of foreboding has led students by the tens of thousands to tweet their thoughts under the hashtag #IfIDieInASchoolShooting since it was started in May.
But, Della Volpe told Axios, our youth is “beginning to see there is a way out of it by increasing their political voice.”
His polling shows voting by the young in the midterms nearly doubled from 2014. Students, led by survivors of last year’s slaughter in Parkland, Florida, have been campaigning loudly for change.
Whatever the contribution of youth to November’s blue wave, Democrats now controlling the U.S. House plan to vote for background checks on virtually every firearms purchase. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is counting on a State Legislature now under Democratic control to pass legislation to stop anyone deemed a threat to themselves or others from buying a gun.
Our young are singing a different song these days. It’s up to the rest of us to listen.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.