Columnist Norma Akamatsu: ‘No power like the power of youth’

  • Millbrook High School students demonstrate against gun violence outside their school in Frederick County, Va., on Feb. 21. AP FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

On Sept. 11, 2001, my daughter, Sarah, was ​six​ days into the ninth grade at Northampton High School.

I was at work and only found out what had happened when my 10 a.m. appointment called to cancel, unnerved by what she’d seen​. My office roommate and I pulled an old and fuzzy TV monitor out of the closet to follow the news​. I said, “I guess this means war.”

Meanwhile, the high school dismissed students early and, thankfully, my daughter went home with her friend to watch the​ coverage on TV with her mother. We didn’t have cell phones then, so Sarah left a message on my office voicemail to let me know where she was.

My husband had died of cancer in 1999. On Sept. 11, 2001, my daughter said, “I was just getting over the idea that bad things happen out of the blue that can kill you. Now I’m feeling that all over again.”

My inner “Tiger Mother” leaped up. I was determined to show her we can take action. The Unitarian Society of Northampton sent an email blast inviting all who wanted to gather at this tragic and upending time to meet at the society on Main Street.

I pulled my daughter along with me. I wanted to show her that even when terrible, frightening disasters occur, we can take refuge in a community. We can connect with others and take action. I thought about what I could possibly do in response.

I quickly got involved in developing dialogues to create a crucible for metabolizing the catastrophe of 9/11 and to plumb our deepest values for ideas on how to respond. My colleague, Adin Thayer, and I met with Northampton High School teachers to discuss how to talk with students about it.

Although my memory is a bit foggy, I believe it was not soon after that when concerned parents and faculty organized a teach-in at the high school — a panel of speakers offering differing views on what 9/11 meant and how the United States might react, followed by an opportunity for all students to discuss their reactions in class.

Now, in 2018, the response of the students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and elsewhere, begs us, exhorts us — parents, teachers and all concerned adults — to take action to support them. How moving and powerful their passionate and articulate voices of reason, calling out members of Congress with the dollar amounts of the National Rifle Association contributions they had received.

What a profound education on the inner workings of our government, on the real effects of our current campaign financing. Imagine the teach-in that could be organized at any of our local high schools with our deep bench of local scholars and experts on these matters.

The historian, Nancy MacLean, spoke recently at Smith College. She suggested that despite their hugely unequal influence, the “1 percent” hold a basic fear. They are few and the “99 percent” are many. They fear the mobilization and unification of the “99 percent” against them.

The summer after that freshman year at high school, my daughter had the privilege of participating in a hip-hop social justice theater camp in Amherst called Project 2050. (Back then 2050 was the year it was projected that people of color would become the numeric majority in the United States). Participants were offered education by local experts on a range of issues and hip-hop artists helped the youths shape their learning into art, a strong and heartfelt performance of their concerns and values.

On the opening day, 82-year-old Frances Crowe took part in the welcome gathering of student-participants, parents, teachers and artists.

After a short talk, Frances led the assembled group in a vigorous, loud and intensifying chant, as she led us stomping around the hall: “There is no power like the power of youth, ‘cause nothing can make youth stop! There is no power like the power of youth, ‘cause nothing can make youth stop ...”

My daughter corrects me, “Ain’t no power like the power of youth, ’cuz the power of youth don’t stop.”

Norma Akamatsu is a clinical social worker in Northampton.