The Slow-Cooked Sentence

It’s never too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize: Relying on Thoreau as I mother a young climate activist

Rachael Conlin Levy
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Mural on the side of the Seattle Pacific Art Center building on Queen Anne Avenue North and West Cremona Street.

As the minister spoke about why climate change posed the greatest threat mankind has known, my 11-year-old son scooted his seat closer to mine and leaned against me. I put my arm around his narrow shoulders and felt his warmth through his thin shirt.

“You know, it’s not news, that we need to change our beliefs and our behavior quickly, without any guarantee that the change will make any difference,” the Rev. Jon Luopa told his congregation.

To avoid this horrifying situation, to avert disaster, the minister said, we must rise up in nonviolent protest and resistance. I turned my attention away from the minister’s frightening sermon, and listened to my child sigh, to the drumming of rain on the gymnasium roof.

This youngest son of mine loves animals, of which whole species are now dying at elevated rates. He loves to run, yet has been forced indoors because of smoke-choked skies. And, like his mom, he loves a good fight.

“What that sermon was missing was a call to action,” he told me as we left.

“I agree. And there’s one coming up. Students are walking out of schools this week.”

“What?” he asked.

“There’s a student-led climate strike Friday. I’m going. Do you want to come?”

And so began a week of discussion about the meaning of a strike, and what the consequences might be if he walked out of school without permission. He researched how many unexcused absences he was allowed. I phoned his school counselor and told her of his plan to participate.

Together, my son and I talked about the proud history of civil disobedience, used by environmental activists, anti-war protestors, civil-rights marchers, suffragettes, and Boston Tea Party rioters to force society to confront its moral failings, and to usher in necessary change in self-governance.

The term “civil disobedience” was coined by Henry David Thoreau in his 1848 essay to describe his refusal to pay a tax that helped to fund the federal government’s war in Mexico and to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Thoreau refused to pay the tax and accepted the consequence, imprisonment. To do anything other than break the law, he argued in his essay, would only “lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

“There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them,” Thoreau wrote. “… They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them.”

Like Thoreau’s thousands, I’m lending vote and voice, but not my life to a cause I believe in. The danger posed by climate change, writes author and activist Naomi Klein in “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” is no longer a future threat, but a lived reality. And yet I live, my neighbors live, my minister lives, my friends live, my siblings live, my parents live, as if there is no emergency. But my son? This skinny man-child whose face is usually brightened with a smile knows differently. Upon his small shoulders, we lay the consequences of our inaction.

“It has been more than three decades since governments and scientists started officially meeting to discuss the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the dangers of climate breakdown,” Klein wrote. “In the intervening years, we have heard countless appeals for action that involve ‘the children,’ ‘the grandchildren,’ and ‘generations to come.’ As for those children and grandchildren and generations to come who were invoked so promiscuously? They are no longer mere rhetorical devices. They are now speaking (and screaming, and striking) for them selves. Unlike so many adults in positions of authority, they have not yet been trained to mask the unfathomable stakes of our moment in the language of bureaucracy and overcomplexity. They understand that they are fighting for the fundamental right to live full lives.”

So my son and I made a plan. He would raise his hand in class, tell the teacher he was going to the climate march, then leave, with or without permission. He would not go to the office, but would walk out the front doors to where his dad, older brother and I would be waiting. We’d hop in the car, drive his brother to his college dorm, quickly move him in, then park the car and catch the light rail to the rally and march.

“Can’t you sign me out at the front office?” he asked.

“No, breaking the rule is part of the protest. You’ve got to do this on your own, but I’ll be waiting for you across the street from school.”

“Got it,” he said.

“You’ve got a 15-minute window where we’ll be waiting outside,” I told him, “then we’re leaving. Your brother has a move-in time and otherwise we’ll miss it. If you come out after 9:15, we’ll be gone, understand?”

“Yep, I got it.”

The morning of the school strike, he left for school without his lunch, binder or trumpet because he had no need of them; he’d be walking out twenty minutes after the first bell rang. Meanwhile, we loaded my college-bound son’s suitcase and boxes into the car, then headed to the middle school and parked across the street.

As I walked away from the car for a better view of the school’s front doors, a small clump of kids carrying hand-lettered posters moved toward the sidewalk. The group of young activists–all seventh- and eighth-graders– were being shepherded by a sophomore from the nearby high school to the downtown march.

“Did any of you see a sixth-grader in the hall?” I asked them as they passed, but they hadn’t. None had gone inside to begin the day under normal pretense, only to disrupt it in protest.

Thoreau’s call–Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine–is an act that requires tremendous courage. As the minutes ticked away and the school door remained closed, I wondered if my son would come.

Another mother joined me. She was there to pick up her son who also was walking out, and together we waited and wondered. Would our boys join us? Would fear of school authority hold them back? Would the desire to conform keep them in their chairs?

As the minutes grew, so did my doubt and disappointment. Do I go inside and check him out? What about lunches and binders that’d been left at home? Action or inaction, the consequence would bring discomfort. I checked my watch; there were just minutes left.

Then, through the entrance windows, we spotted a shadow that moved to the front door, then shifted out of sight. Now it was back, again, joined by a second shadow, a shadow whose height and heft I knew instantly. As mothers, we moved toward our children who opened the door.

“They won’t let us go. You must sign us out,” they told us. My son hovered in the entry, uncertain where to go, what to do, fearing what might happen if he crossed the thresh hold. His face was drained of color and creased with worry. I shook my head.

“It’s time to go.”

“But they won’t let me.”

“This is what it means to strike. You go anyway.”

I reached through the door, wrapped my arm around his shoulder and led him through the door and to my side.

As the four of us walked away from the school, an office attendant followed, yelling at us to return and sign out our children, questioning why they’d shown up only to leave minutes later, shaming us for refusing to bend to bureaucracy and follow rules intended to educate our children and keep them safe. With my son tucked under my arm, I turned to face her.

“Hon, he’s walking out and we’re going to the march, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” I said.

“But I don’t know who you are. I don’t know your name. You’re a stranger, leaving with a student.”

I wished I had told her that it was civic duty that moved us to defy the rules, and that laws such as truancy were ludicrous when viewed against the existential threat of climate change, and that we were acting in the spirit of Thoreau, letting our lives be the counter-friction against the machine, and that I’d then thanked her for being the machine, for defending the rules, for making my boy feel her disapproval and taste fear, yet still muster the courage to overcome it and discover that his desire for a healthy planet was greater than any punishment she could’ve handed out.

Instead, I looked at my son.

I looked at her, then shrugged.

And we walked off school property.

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At the rally, my son slipped out of his T-shirt so he could silkscreen the front of it with a quote from Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

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“Our house is on fire,” is a quote from 16-year-old Thunberg, who began the school-strikes-for climate movement.



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