Recess: In face of climate change, these students get heated - and organized

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GREAT BARRINGTON — At around 10:30 on the morning of Dec. 13, the voices of a few sixth-grade girls boomed over the Monument Valley Regional Middle School public address system, asking students to join them outside.

The young organizers — Sadie Honig-Briggs, Mirabelle Meyers and Stella Baden — then took to the school's front foyer, which was quickly filling with dozens upon dozens of their classmates, and passed out handwritten signs bearing phrases like "The Earth is on fire" and "We can stop climate change."

But there were other signs that were less about greenhouse gases and more about students themselves being fired up.

"Do your job," read one.

"We're missing our lessons to teach you one," read another.

"You just crossed the line. You made kids angry," a third read.

The "your" and "you" weren't particularly defined, but speeches later seemed to indicate that the messages were targeted at the older generation, particularly adults that haven't passed climate change policies or who don't believe in climate change in general.

The fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade students marched to the front of the school, their teachers standing alongside them for crowd control. The youths chatted among themselves as they faced the event's fearless leaders, Meyers with a bullhorn in her hand, Baden and Honig-Briggs placing a prewritten speech on a borrowed music stand.

They looked at each other, then their classmates in front of them, looked back to one another, then over to Principal Ben Doren. The freedom of speech was in their hands, but they were a little unsure of how to use it.

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"Do you want to start or me?" Doren asked.

This is what people in the education or parenting fields like to call a "teachable moment."

Just days earlier, Time magazine announced 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as its 2019 "Person of the Year." The subtitle on the magazine cover simply read, "The Power of Youth."

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Honig-Briggs, Meyers and Baden all consider Thunberg to be their hero.

"Young people like her are standing up for what we believe in," Honig-Briggs said.

"It's really hard to ignore a kid," Meyers said.

They felt emboldened and empowered by Thunberg's rise to action to take their own first steps on climate action. They attended a climate rally earlier in the year with their families and then approached their principal about doing something at the school, beyond their class lessons on climate. He agreed to go along with their plans, so long as they stayed involved and organized. Together, they're planning a few school forums on the subject this winter.

To help boost the students' confidence and credibility, Doren briefly introduced the students before stepping back to let them speak. There were a few false starts as they fiddled with the bullhorn and its siren went off unexpectedly. After their own rallying speech, the girls led chants, then passed the bullhorn down a line for about a dozen of their peers, who also had something to say.

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Some remarks were brief. Other students, including sixth graders Willa Pohl and Keely Shealynn Demary, typed up their remarks to share.

Demary cautioned that people can't wait until tomorrow to change habits that generate greenhouse gases and pollution. "Just because you can't plant a million trees doesn't mean you can't do anything," said Demary, urging students to reduce plastic waste and reuse containers.

Pohl expressed her anger and frustration with people's indifference to the threats of climate change. She said, "Don't come crawling back to me when the snow melts too quickly and you can't make snow angels on the first morning of winter."

Eighth graders Kay'dance Banks and Benjamin Gross gave props to their younger counterparts. It was their sixth-grade year that they — along with thousands of other students nationwide — decided to organize and rally against school violence in wake of the Valentine's Day 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Banks said that's why she and other students, year after year, sign up to take part in training for the school's mentoring program, "to help stop anything that is negative happening in our community because we want to help our community be a better place."

Gross looked over at the three sixth-grade girls with a bullhorn and cheeks flushed from the energy of the event, and the winter's cold.

"I know what they're going through. [Organizing] is a lot to do. But I know they're capable of doing this and much more," he said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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