How many adults don’t participate in politics at any level because they think, “What’s the point?” And how many kids learn powerlessness in the face of government bureaucracy before they even reach voting age?
What if kids learned how to effect change before they even made it to high school? What if they could get a real-life lesson in how this happens, and what if they could even participate?
Some kids in my town got this chance this week. In a classic budget dispute, it came to light that the town budget committee, looking to make some cuts from the schools, had floated a proposal to cut the Chinese-language program. Chinese is currently taught in grades 7-12 and is one of four foreign languages taught in the middle and high schools. As my eighth-grade son and a number of his friends are in their second year of Chinese study, this development immediately grabbed my attention.
The lesson began.
With the help of a friend and her son—the latter is my son’s friend and also in his Chinese class—we assembled a list of kids and parents connected to the Chinese program. By the end of the day, we had contacted as many people as possible connected to the program, filled them in on the situation, asked them to attend the next budget meeting and provided them with additional information. My son and his friend spent considerable time over the weekend preparing remarks to explain to the committee why they had elected to study Chinese, why they ought to be allowed to continue and why it would be unfair to discontinue the program now. They also talked to their friends about the meeting to gin up additional support.
At the budget committee meeting Monday evening, kids and parents who opposed cutting the Chinese program filled the small meeting room. Unfortunately, my son had woken up that day with a violent stomach bug, so he didn’t get to deliver the short speech he’d written. (Another life lesson? The best laid plans…) But his friend did, and at the age of 14, he did a fine job of representing his fellow students.
So what happened? Because of the turnout by parents and kids, the remarks in support and the answers to a few questions, the committee saw that a substantial number of people care deeply about this program. They then voted not to cut it. The budget process continues through mid-March via several more steps, so we will continue our vigilance, but every official now knows that this program is equipped with a strong, caring constituency.
What’s my favorite aspect of this whole set of events—aside from saving the Chinese program? The lesson that these kids can take from it.
Every single kid who showed up in that meeting room made a difference. Every kid who encouraged another kid to go to the meeting made a difference. My son and his friend who worked on arguments and spent the weekend talking (actually, texting) to kids made a difference, and my son’s friend who stood up and spoke to a committee full of town officials most certainly made a difference. These kids can’t even vote yet, but they have power, and they exercised it. They helped make a curriculum decision. They guided their own educations. They steered their own futures.
And now, like the rest of us, they need to remain vigilant until the process is over. And then they need to keep one eye on what’s going on around them all the time. Because while no one can be involved in everything, all the time, it’s important to speak up when you care about something. Sometimes you won’t be able to change outcomes, but sometimes you will.
During this often frustrating election year, that’s a fantastic lesson for our kids to learn.