Graham: Raised on dystopia, teenagers find their voice

They’ve been reading and watching ‘The Hunger Games’ for years. It made an impression

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In “The Hunger Games,” a 16-year-old girl rebels against her leaders, becomes a hero to her people and uses her powers to overthrow the government.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez speaks.

Does that sound familiar?

Teens have a new voice in America. Since the Feb. 14 massacre at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 dead, students at Stoneman Douglas High School have changed the national conversation. We’re so used to mass shootings in this country that they usually linger for around a day or two in the news cycle. Politicians offer thoughts and prayers, the “thoughts and prayers are meaningless” conversation begins anew, and then we move on, distracted by some other scandal or story.

This time, that didn’t happen. Because the students at Stoneman Douglas wouldn’t let it.

At a rally last weekend, Stoneman Douglas senior Emma Gonzalez captivated the nation with her passionate speech about gun control and the inaction that left 17 of her friends and classmates dead. She wasn’t polished, but she was poised and she was real, and her fiery words struck a chord.

“I am not a psychologist, but we need to pay attention to the fact that this was not just a mental health issue,” she said, wiping away tears streaming from her eyes. “He wouldn’t have harmed that many students WITH A KNIFE!”

On Wednesday, a week after the shootings — and after a series of ludicrous attacks on the students’ credibility, claiming they’re “crisis actors” — a group of teens appeared on a televised town hall on CNN where they were able to talk to lawmakers about gun control. In the night’s most dramatic moment, Stoneman Douglas junior Cameron Kasky asked Florida senator Marco Rubio, “Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA in the future?”

The building erupted in cheers.

For all the jokes and dismissals about teens and their social awkwardness and their addiction to their smartphones and social media, there is clearly something in the water with these kids. They’re smart, they’re savvy, they’re fired up and they’re not taking things lying down.

Why would they? This is a generation raised on a steady diet of dystopian teen lit and movies like “The Hunger Games,” the “Divergent” and “Maze Runner” series, even the “Harry Potter” books and movies, who have been taught through their entertainment that one warrior can rise up from the masses, take on authority figures and make a difference. Emma Gonzalez is Katniss Everdeen. And there’s a Katniss at every high school in America.

All that time spent on those smartphones is paying off. They’re mobilized: the hashtag #neveragain has taken off, and organizers have used their powers of connectivity to set up anti-gun rallies and student walkouts around the country. They’re not shy and not afraid to speak in front of large groups of people, as many of them have been hosting their own shows on YouTube and narrating their lives on camera for years. They’re driven to make a difference, and emboldened enough to believe they can. And they’re already starting.

Cameron Kasky Jr., left, and other students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School speak with Broward County Sheriff officers.

This is different from the apathy of previous generations. As a late model Gen-Xer, our teenage strife came from dealing with the fallout from Kurt Cobain’s death. We didn’t have school shootings, we had fistfights behind the local L&L. But these teens have grown up in a post-Columbine, post-9/11 world. America has been at war their entire lives. They’re tired of it, and they’re ready to be heard.

Hearing these teens is inspiring. There’s an innocence and an optimism in them that is refreshing, that makes you remember what it was like to be a teenager. You wanted to stand up to authority, to speak your truth, but didn’t have the tools. These kids do, and they’re using them.

In the middle of Gonzalez’ speech, she let out a dismissive “well, duh!” a teenage classic that has stood the test of time. Katniss never said “well, duh,” but that’s OK. This group of teens is writing their own story live, in real time.

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