Technically, I’m not supposed to be telling you this story.
But students around the country are preparing to walk out of classes on Wednesday to call for changes to the nation’s gun laws. For many of them, it will be their first experience with any sort of civil disobedience — for some of them, it may even be their first real experience with rule-breaking. And since I’ve been there, I wanted to let those students know that participating may be harder than they think, but it will almost definitely be more rewarding as well.
When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I was involved in a student group focused on economic justice issues. Mostly that meant a new contract for clerical and technical workers, or backing union recognition for the graduate students who taught us. And as Harvard began making changes to its financial aid policies aimed at making a Harvard education more accessible, we encouraged Yale to step up and match its traditional rival.
The campaign escalated when Yale’s then-president, Richard Levin, suggested that he felt it was important for students from lower-income families to work while they were in school because preserving that obligation would help them learn fiscal responsibility, as if they weren’t already aware of the balancing it took to pay for a Yale education. We planned to send 15 students to the Yale admissions office, where they would sit down and refuse to leave until the school agreed to change the financial aid policy.
I hadn’t originally planned to be one of the 15. I wasn’t quite ready to be arrested or suspended. But then one of my friends learned that he wouldn’t be able to move his work-study shift to participate, and I agreed to take his place. I was then and remain a goody two-shoes who writes paper thank-you notes and agonizes over corrections. The thought of being arrested “or worse — expelled,” to quote my fellow strait-laced student Hermione Granger, was disconcerting.
Of course, a lot of factors mitigated the risks we faced. We were largely white students at a prestigious university. Lots of us had experience dealing with the press: At the time, I was a columnist for the Yale Daily News. We were confident we could attract enough reporters so that if we were arrested and removed from the building, our treatment would be documented, affording us a measure of protection.
In the end, we were arrested by university police, though Yale was so worried about the prospect of marching us out of the building that the campus cops set up an impromptu processing station in the admissions office where they booked us, gave us citations (which we paid) and released us. And Yale did try us for violations of undergraduate regulations. Ultimately, we were reprimanded, sent official letters telling us that we were forbidden to discuss those reprimands — and Yale adopted a new financial aid policy.
I don’t want to pretend that every student who walks out of class Wednesday will be so lucky. Some schools have announced that students who participate will be suspended, though a number of colleges have pledged not to count those suspensions against future applicants. Being disciplined by your school isn’t fun, and for some students, suspension is a riskier proposition than it is for others. Neither is it delightful to potentially get in trouble with your parents. But to students who are on the fence about walking out, I offer my own experience as testimony that sometimes, it’s worth breaking the rules, and even the law.
In stepping up for my friend, I was less risking my own reputation than harnessing it in service of someone who would have had to pay higher costs for his activism. The experience was a vital reminder that privilege is only valuable if you actually use it. I did suffer some social consequences for participating in the sit-in, mostly because I had to give other obligations short shrift. But choices like that are an inevitable part of adult life, and I gained confidence in my ability to see which choices were right for me. And, although going through the disciplinary process was frightening at times, I learned that I could survive getting in trouble — that prospective shame lost some of its power to define my life.
Most of all, I learned a lot from the simple fact that we won. Maybe Yale would have capitulated anyway, rather than risk losing students who had been admitted to both schools to more generous financial aid offers from Harvard. But our arrests, the students who turned out to support us during the sit-in, and the faculty who spoke up on our behalf at our disciplinary hearing sent a clear and unambiguous message. If the protest hadn’t been able to go forward because I didn’t step up, and if the policy hadn’t changed, I would have regretted it forever.
Some of the students walking out of school Wednesday are old enough to vote. But not all of them are. And sometimes a ballot isn’t a sufficiently timely, specific or vehement way to convey how you feel about a fundamental issue. Walking out is one manner of letting the adults around you know exactly what your position is on gun violence. And in the process, you might get to know yourself a little better, too.