In the wee morning hours on Saturday, March 24, Connecticut teachers filled a bus bound for Washington, D.C., in a major show of support for students and safe schools.
Teachers from Avon, Bloomfield, Cheshire, Clinton, Cornwall, Coventry, East Hartford, Killingly, Manchester, Mansfield, Newington, Norwich, Tolland, Trumbull, and Waterbury—as well as retired educators from around the state—participated in the student-led March for Our Lives at the nation’s capital, joined by their colleagues in marches throughout Connecticut and worldwide.
“We are here to support our nation’s students in their demand for meaningful action for safe schools,” said Bridgeport teacher Mia Dimbo. “It’s time to honor the victims of school shootings by passing commonsense gun laws and providing funding for mental health services and other school resources.”
Vote them out
Survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, headlined Saturday’s event, calling out politicians who have refused to budge on commonsense gun laws and calling on rally supporters to “vote them out.”
“My hometown needs the alliance of other communities to properly spread this message,” Parkland student Jaclyn Corin told the crowd—hundreds of thousands strong—gathered on the Mall. “Our elected officials have seen American after American drop from a bullet, and instead of waking up to protect us, they have been hitting the snooze button. But we’re here to shake them awake! We cannot ‘keep America great,’” she added in air quotes, “if we cannot keep America safe.”
East Hartford High School language arts teacher Kayla McDonald, who joined CEA’s bus to D.C. with her educator husband, Robert, said, “I am a teacher in an at-risk district, and I need my kids and my colleagues to feel safe in our schools.”
Reaping what we sow
“We are so proud of all of our students for speaking up, getting engaged, and taking action on the causes they believe in,” said Montville teacher Jenny Natale. “I’m thrilled to be a part of this, I’m inspired by the students of Parkland and Newtown who are here today, and I’m proud of my fellow teachers.”
She explained, “As teachers, we always encourage students to think critically about social justice issues, and today we applaud their efforts. We’re always happy to see our lessons in the classroom come alive for students in the real world.”
Tolland teacher Amanda Bellman, who attended the D.C. rally with her 14-year-old son Joshua, agreed.
“As a teacher, I encourage my students to help change the world for the better; it’s a message I always write in their yearbooks,” she said. “What we’re seeing today is exactly that—a group of social activists.”
Teachers like Bellman, McDonald, Natale, and Dimbo were a strong presence in D.C., meeting up with fellow teachers from as far south as Florida and as far west as Oregon at the headquarters of the National Education Association (NEA), which opened its doors to educators and students over the weekend so that they had a place to gather, meet, make signs, and step off together for the historic march.
Teachers carried signs with powerful messages such as
- Teachers Pack Knowledge, Not Heat
- Students Should Be Dodging Balls, Not Bullets
- Arms Are for Hugging
- Trained to Be a Teacher, Not a Sharpshooter
- Freedom from Fear Is a Civil Right for Students and Teachers
- Actually, Guns Do Kill People
- I Would Die for My Students, But I Shouldn’t Have To
Students also held up heart-wrenching posters from their own perspective.
“There Are Better Ways to Reduce Class Size” read one teenager’s sign showing an image of an AR-15.
An elementary school girl’s handmade poster, with each letter drawn in a different color, read simply, “I Shouldn’t Have to Call My Mom from Under My Desk.”
Change is coming
“Too many schools, too many churches, too many movie theaters, too many neighborhoods, too many homes—enough is enough,” said Newtown student Mathew Soto, whose sister was one of the first-grade children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on the day her class had eagerly awaited to make gingerbread houses. “America, I am pleading for you to realize that this is not O.K.” Soto urged his fellow young people to register to vote and “bring power to the polls.”
In the wake of Sandy Hook, Connecticut enacted historic laws addressing school safety, mental health, and guns—some of the toughest in the nation—and they were passed with Republicans and Democrats working together. CEA has urged other states to follow Connecticut’s lead.
“As soon as I found out CEA had organized a bus for us, I knew instantly I would be on it,” said Trumbull teacher Carolyn St. John. “It’s important to encourage these young voices to speak their truth. They are going to be the ones who change the world. It’s time, and they’re going to do it.”
Manchester teacher Regina Gatmaitan brought along a sign she had made for her district’s Walk-In for School Safety a few weeks earlier. It showed Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 painting Freedom from Fear, which Gatmaitan pointed out is “unfortunately still as relevant today as it was during World War II.”
Retired teachers Shaye Sheehan and Judy Richey said their commitment to student safety is just as strong today as when they were in the classroom.
“This is an issue I’m passionate about,” said Sheehan, adding, “The so-called solution of arming teachers is ridiculous. Connecticut residents haven’t lost their second amendment rights, but look how much we’ve done to increase school safety and enact commonsense gun control since Sandy Hook. We have to take national action now.”
“It’s been a very emotional day,” said Tolland teacher Happy Hill, who is also a parent. “We all care so much about our students, and it’s nice to be all together here, feeling that and showing that.”