The Zero Mile Post marked the meeting of two railway lines and possibly the beginning of the city of Atlanta.
I wanted more trees. That was my cause. A photograph from my high school newspaper showed me handing out seedlings. It was Earth Day 25 years ago. I was a teenager. And it wasn’t the last time I took a stand. But it’s been easy for me.
I wanted trees. I wanted trees to line the streets. I wanted trees in my backyard.
I didn’t have to fight for my right to live.
My kids are sometimes afraid at school. They go on lockdown. Even as a preparedness drill, it is unsettling for them. They face bigger battles and angrier foes than I ever have. Now they are asking for the right to protest. To be heard. To live.
“Did you ever protest anything,” they asked me. My answer is no.
I try to explain the past that I still don’t understand.
Others faced firehoses.
Others were attacked by dogs.
“I don’t understand,” my kids have said. It makes no sense to them. “Being Black was the reason you couldn’t eat in a restaurant? That’s the reason they called the police?”
Others sat at a restaurant counter while another people spit phlegm into their faces.
Others had to fight to vote, to breathe, to not be killed.
Many were beaten or arrested or lynched.
I think about people who protested and died. I see the names Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. They called it Freedom Summer. I wonder how often people died for freedom on a different kinds of battlefields.
For my kids, the battlefield is school. And the streets. Hiding in classrooms and dying. Walking home from school to be killed in the crossfire. An accidental gunshot between two friends, and then one friend is gone.
All I wanted was more trees. I never had to protest my freedom. Someone did it for me.
And my kids asked me about protest. They ask me questions about the “walk out” of school. I am the wrong person to ask. They want me to tell them what to do. I can’t.
I understand the need for protest. I tell them, they can do what feels right. I ask them what they will do in addition to walking out of class.
How many letters will you write?
How many phone calls will you make?
How many wrongs will you try to right in this world?
How will you feel after doing what’s right and seeing the world is still wrong?
I will not punish my kids for following their hearts. I told them this. We read the statements from the school systems. Atlanta. DeKalb. Decatur. I read the words carefully. I understand the need for caution, but I applaud those willing to let the students take a stand.
I try to explain that you don’t need anyone’s permission to protest. Not your mother. Not your principal.
“But Mom, what would you do?” They have asked me a hundred times. And I tell them the truth.
I wouldn’t walk out.
“My friends said I’m being a chicken if you don’t walk out.”
“Really?” I’m angry. “This is what your principal is worried about. The kids who ruin things for the other kids doing the right thing.”
I wouldn’t walk out when I was a kid. Not because I was scared, but because I am sometimes a rule follower. Sometimes. I stand for the pledge. I stand for the National Anthem. I will not take a knee. I will beg no more. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the fight. I believe we each fight in our own way.
I want my kids to fight in their own way.
Should I walk out? Should I sit-in? When do I kneel? When do I take a stand?
I just wanted trees. In the backyard of my childhood home, I planted six trees. They are 25 years old now. Some fights take a long time to win.
I have fought for my kids every day of my life. But this is one time I don’t need to lead the way. If they need to take up the fight, I will proudly stand behind them.
At 10 o’clock in the morning, millions of students will leave their classrooms. I think of our teachers. I will think of the parents with children lying in graves. I will be at work. I will wonder where my children decided to take their stand.
Nicki Salcedo knows the loops and the back roads of Atlanta. She is a novelist, blogger and working mom. The Zero Mile column appears on the Atlanta Loop on Wednesdays.