Tinkering with Students’ Lives

Lauren Doninger and Mary Beth Tinker, originally uploaded by Aldon.

In December 1965, a thirteen year old student wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam war. It was a small act, and did not lead to any immediate de-escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. She probably didn’t expect her arm band to end the war, but she also probably didn’t expect it to change her life, and the life of others that way it did.

Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the school violated Ms. Tinker’s First Amendment Freedom of Speech when they sent her home for wearing that armband.

Last night, she spoke at the ACLU of Connecticut’s Milton Sorokin Symposium, “Students and Schools Pushing the Limits of Free Speech”. The evening started off with Justice Richard N. Palmer presenting the 2009 First Amendment Essay Contest winners. These students had written essays on the topic, “In what circumstance should a school be able to punish students for their speech off campus?”

The evening was moderated by Laurie Perez of Fox 61 News who has written about the Doninger case and noted that this case is the most searched item on the Fox 61 News website.

Many lawyers seemed star struck to be in the presence of a plaintiff of such an important Supreme Court case. What sort of message would Ms. Tinker deliver? How had the event changed her life? What were the influences that led her to wearing the arm band on that fateful day, and what had her life turned out to be like forty years later?

Ms. Tinker spoke about her father being a Methodist minister and how she had been brought up with the exhortation to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. She spoke about moving out of one town because of her father’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement and dinner time discussions about her parents’ experiences going to register voters in the south in 1964.

She commented that “That’s the sort of person I want to be, to stand up for what is right”, and spoke about the importance of telling stories not only about Cinderella, but also about brave people who stood up for what they believed in.

Clearly, her parents’ simple acts of courage had a hand in shaping her life, as did her experiences with the famous lawsuit. She became a nurse and works mostly with trauma patients; gunshots, knifings, and accidents. She spends her free time going from one event to another, trying to help students find their voices, to stand up for themselves, and to lead the way to a better world.

She spoke as a nurse, recognizing that one of the most important things a student can do for their long term health is graduate from high school. She spoke about advocating for ‘democratic schools’ and noted that a punitive approach to education, especially regarding what happens beyond the school yard gate drives students away from schools. She talked about the problems with the school to prison pipeline.

In many ways, her talk could be summed up in the simple words she often tells students, “You are going to make history with your small actions or inactions”. As she spoke, I thought of a different quote from Robert Kennedy:

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Her parents sent forth a tiny ripple of hope, it crossed the ripple of hope she and her fellow students sent out, it now crosses the ripples of hope sent out by the students whose lives she has touched as she goes around the country encouraging students to speak up.

After she spoke, Patrice McCarthy, Deputy Director and General Counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education spoke. It must be following such a powerful speaker, but Ms. McCarthy held her own and her remarks and the question and answer period deserve their own post.

So, I put up my blog posts and wonder what sort of effect my small actions might make. I wonder about the actions of other bloggers I visit online. We may never see the effect of our actions the way Ms. Tinker has, but we should all keep to our little actions and our hopes for a better world.