There are numerous benchmarks of achievement in high school, whether social, athletic, academic or personal growth. School is a busy, often overwhelming journey, and carving out one’s identity may include a mix of of the above. What is often missing, however, is one's political voice. For many, cynicism about politics starts at the dinner table, but for others so does the realization that, no matter how bad things are in Washington DC or your own community, one dismisses politics at his or her own peril. Politics affects our lives in subtle, sometimes seemingly invisible ways; if we’re not paying attention, it’s our fault. The Parkland, Florida shootings sparked an awareness that one’s protest, combined with others, can lead to a movement, and a movement can lead to significant change. But the effort requires courage, time, and an understanding of history.
My new novel, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election, centers on a history teacher who asks his AP students to write their term paper on where their lives will be in ten years. Britain, a political novice, finds her entire identity challenged in a student body election. Once the gates of self-knowledge open, it feels both dangerous and overwhelming, but she doesn’t run from her new voice, she runs to it. She rewrites her essay for history class, realizing where she wants to be rather than where everyone expects her to be.
“This novel contains political and socioeconomic messages about the current state of things and the recent future as well. Its brilliance is that it wraps complex concepts into an easy-to-follow story that is surprisingly relatable to all ages. An incredibly engaging book." - Gerry Orz, an eleventh grade activist, author and filmmaker, attending Connection Academy in Capistrano, California.
In 2017, I began wondering how the new political norms in Washington would filter down to a public high school election, say, in 2025. I made middle-of-the-night notes. Then I put those notes into pages. Then I made the pages into a novel. Then I rewrote the story a half dozen times… until I began to see how it could all come true.
In a world where one news story, no matter how wrenching, risks being eclipsed quickly by another tragic event, the story of Parkland, Florida has stayed with me. Like, every day. It grabs my heart even more than Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or dozens of other school killings. It’s hard emotionally to get beyond the slaughter of innocents, or the mental illness of their killers, but the survivors of Parkland found a collective voice to challenge a dark pattern of history, proclaiming “#Never Again.” They have an ambitious agenda now of lobbying legislatures, pursuing social media, and broadening their coalition. I’m rooting for them with every step.
Down deep is another remarkable thing about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the weeks following the tragedy, I listened to Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzales, Alex Wind, David Hogg and other student leaders speak for sensible gun legislation and the responsibility of adults to protect minors. My take-away was maybe it’s high school students who need to protect and keep honest the adults. Their outspokenness was perhaps unprecedented coming from an American high school. Watching how poised, articulate and impactful a sixteen, seventeen or eighteen-year old could be, I was struck by their cohesiveness in rallying behind one of our century’s major issues: how to make us safer in an age of deepening insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety.
I have come to view students, in public and private high schools, as inescapably important members of society. For all the painful stories of kids marginalized by bullying and shaming, or who turn to drugs or guns or suicide to escape because they see no tunnel with a light, look again at Marjory Stoneman High School. Students are proving there is a light to follow—speaking their convictions with dispassionate eloquence—and to move toward that light means self-esteem and self-empowerment. High schools across the country now have a precedent for being heard on crucial issues because a tired Congress, overworked media, churches, and political non-profits can’t get the job done alone. I hope more students give themselves permission to be taken seriously. They should insist on it, and ignore critics who view high school as a mere launch to college or adulthood.
I was in college in the golden age of President Kennedy’s dictum “don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Responding, my generation threw itself into the civil rights movement, the Peace Corp, local and national politics, and a search for a deeper identity for ourselves and our country. In the category of social activism. high schools might be the new colleges. As our political culture grows jarringly complicated, and I feel repression in the air, I long for the strength of new voices.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.