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Bloomington students stand among a new generation marching for change



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A student protester raises a sign above the crowd Saturday at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. Bloomington high schoolers traveled 13 hours to the nation's capital to advocate for gun reform. Lydia Gerike Buy Photos

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The crowd is waiting for an unannounced guest on the March for Our Lives speaker lineup, and it seems no one in the immense crowd near the National Mall knows who it could be.

A pod of Bloomington kids, part of a group of 46 students who traveled to the march the day before, tries to guess.

Bloomington High School North seniors Caleb Poer and Ruth Nall had told each other earlier they hoped former President Barack Obama would surprise everyone — could it be him?

They strain to see the stage above the crowd and watch as a girl emerges and introduces herself to the crowd as Yolanda Renee King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s 9-year-old granddaughter. 

She’s like her grandfather, she tells the crowd. She also has a dream.

“I have a dream that enough is enough,” Yolanda says.

Many of the speeches at the march so far have quoted Yolanda's grandfather, but now Bloomington high school students are listening to a direct descendant of one of history’s best-known political activists.

Yolanda begins a chant. People in the crowd, fueled by the energy of those around them, shout back at her.

“Spread the word.

Have you heard?

We.

Are going to be.

A great generation.”

Their words grow stronger with every line, as if slowly convincing themselves throughout the chant that the young King’s words are true.

***

Bloomington students want to be part of that great generation, one that will not stand idly by after 17 people were killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

They had watched the responses to this shooting start off the same as always: Politicians offered thoughts and prayers. Gun reform proponents demanded the nation talk about gun control, while others claimed it was insensitive to bring up politics in the wake of a tragedy. Many people waited for the news to die from the media.

But this time, something feels different. People ­— especially high school students — seem ready for a change.

Parkland survivors led the call to action simply by speaking out, and like many others across the nation, Bloomington students followed suit. In an age where shootings have killed children of all ages across the country, it’s no longer difficult to imagine gun violence affecting their own schools.

Bloomington High School South senior Malachi Britton says he can see the outer doors of his high school from where he sits in the cafeteria at lunchtime. In the weeks since Parkland, he’s caught himself looking at the doors and realizing if someone with came in with an gun, he could be one of the first to die.

“How are you supposed to operate with that?” he asks.

Their first chance to make their fear and anger clear is the march, which is what brings them and at 6:30 a.m. Friday to the AMC Classic Bloomington 11 to wait for a Miller charter bus to take them and four chaperones through the 13-hour journey to Washington, D.C.

The local Moms Demand Action chapter donated care packages. In the gallon-sized Ziploc bags packed with clementines, Oreos and Mott’s fruit snacks, the group also included MDA buttons and stickers demanding gun sense in America.

“Safe travels,” someone wrote on the bags, “We’re so proud of you!”

With the support of MDA, other political groups and members of the community, the students raised $15,000 to travel to Washington.

It’s been a largely self-organized trip, with only minimal help from adults, which Nall says could be difficult as she worked to plan the details. There were people who emailed her mom instead of her, as if they didn’t believe a group of high schoolers could bring this together.

But when everyone is onboard the bus and there’s nothing to do but head forward toward Washington, Nall can relax a little.

"Now that it’s finally happening," she says, "I’m not stressed out anymore."

With the long ride ahead of them, the kids unpack things to do. They read books, take naps and play games. Nall grabs Cards Against Humanity — a dark humor version of Apples to Apples — a few hours in and deals cards to a group at the front of the bus.

They play a few rounds, choosing from their hands of white answer cards what they think would be the best answer to different black prompt cards. The answers are edgy — referencing topics like drugs and depression — but for this game, that’s how things go. 

During his turn, South senior Peter Grumbling picks a black question card from the top of the pile and reads, “What are my parents hiding from me?”

The others turn in their white answer cards, and Grumbling reads them off.

No one really thinks the first few are funny.

He turns over another one.

“An AR-15 assault rifle.”

The card lands, evoking uncomfortable laughter from the group, more response than any other answer in the round.

In the moment of light-hearted fun, it’s a reminder why they’re on this bus in the first place. 

***

As they hop off the charter bus at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station the next morning, the students are energetic and ready.

Poer holds a megaphone, leading the group in practicing different chants for the march.

“Show me what democracy looks like,” they say on the train. “This is what democracy looks like.”

Some carry signs they made the night before in their Comfort Inn rooms in Springfield, Virginia.

“TEENAGERS ARE BIG AND CAN TAKE GUNS FROM TEACHERS,” one says.

Others decorated their protest signs with pop culture references. Although they came to stand up against the political system and adults they believe have failed to protect them, the signs are a reminder they’re still kids.

***

Demi Lovato is singing “Skyscraper” onstage, and the Bloomington kids in the crowd are getting emotional over it.

Nall and her friend Joye Tracey, another North senior, reach their hands out to each other in the crowd. They are both wearing light blue-green polishes that seem identical but that Nall says aren't exactly the same.

Before Parkland, their last major confrontation with gun violence was in January 2017, when Tracey was stuck at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport during an active shooter situation.

Tracey and her family had been in a different terminal and were out of the airport by that point, but she was still shaken by what had happened around her. 

Nall was the first person who called to make sure she was OK.

“I could tell how scared she was, and I started crying,” Nall says, remembering it later. “It was terrifying.”

A little over a year later, gun violence hasn’t gone away, but now they can stand against it together.

***

Throughout the Sunday bus ride back to Bloomington, the students are still fired up.

As the bus draws close to home and their time on the trip winds down, some of the students toward the back of the bus repeat the claps and cheers to relive the march one last time.

North senior Tamara Brown stands up from her seat and shouts for the attention of the entire bus.

“This is a repeat after me song,” she says.

The kids start to echo back, and Brown continues the chant.

For Brown, the chant is a reminder of the journey she and her friends had just taken. They are young, but they have the chance to lead the world to a better future.

The chant isn’t any of the ones she and her friends had practiced on the Metro before the march. Instead, she’s chosen one she learned there, one from the young girl with a dream.

“Spread the word.

Have you heard?

We.

Are going to be.

A great generation.”

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