On Dec. 13, 2012, hundreds of Toronto high school students filed out of their regular classes and convened on the lawn of our provincial legislature to rally in opposition to the ironically-titled “Putting Students First Act” — a bill which nullified the collective bargaining agreements of our teachers and allowed the government to impose contracts. The act of protest garnered public attention, and rightfully made its way into the front pages of the next morning’s newspapers. To the average observer, such an overtly political mobilization by high school students must have come off as an anomaly; and in many ways it was. Just as quickly as students had taken to the streets in opposition to the bill, they had returned to the monotonous and politically devoid toils of adolescent study and recreation. Students continued on with their lives as though no labour dispute or protest had ever transpired. To many, what happened on that day was nothing more than a rare moment in time when passivity temporarily gives way to revolt; but I’ve come to understand it as being something with implications of a much greater magnitude.
As a primary organizer for the rally, I was given a taste of the potential for high school organizing which many of my peers are prevented from being exposed to. High schools, like universities, provide a fertile basis for organization simply because education constitutes a social act. Karl Marx once wrote, “With the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.” Though writing in terms of the industrial workplace, concentration into state schools developed almost peripherally to the rise of industry and can be likened to it in many ways. Just as workers merge themselves into trade unions, so too can students more easily merge themselves into autonomous groupings as centres for social action than if they were dispersed. This was proven to me in the lead-up to our own demonstration. The few students who were made aware of the labour situation, often as a result of their teachers engaging them, took it on themselves to mobilize their fellow students against the bill. From there momentum spread like wildfire, and hundreds were mobilized within a matter of days.
With such fluid means of organization at their disposal, why then do high school students neglect their potential for mobilization? For one thing, students are not typically politically motivated to begin with. It was only in having the benefit of being taught by a number of progressive-minded teachers in my previous year that I realized how bland the curriculum is in topics like labour and social movements. Lessons can often operate under the assumption that the world and the system which drives it are operating harmoniously, and that unrest is only anomalous and can be resolved through the ballot box and belief in the market. Teachers and students alike find themselves trapped in the misguided belief that education is impartial, casually ignoring how the capitalist system influences what, and how, education is taught. It is as though we live our lives on an uninhabited island. Why would students be expected to care about social unrest when they are led to believe there is no ongoing unrest in the first place?
Secondly, students and teachers are divorced from one another. The classroom sets the boundaries of tolerable interaction, with all else being considered heretical by administration. A primary reason for the success of our protest was the moral and logistical support offered up by a number of our teachers in the days leading up to it. Certain teachers would set up spaces for dialogue intermittently throughout their courses, allowing for open discussion on pressing social issues and ultimately fuelling our drive towards mobilization. From my own observation, it was those very schools where the teachers remained divorced from their students that mobilization against the bill remained weak or was suppressed.
Transforming our high schools into centres for activism is by no means a stretch of the imagination. High school students have reason to be mobilizing, on matters ranging from future employment to the quality of their education. Where radical students and teachers exist, they should work to shatter these misconceptions and make students conscious of the unrest festering outside of the walls of their school. Teachers should no longer be afraid of breaking from the impartiality façade, and own up to the radical history of unionization and action from down below. Classrooms should periodically become areas for critical discussion, with the underlying intention of eventually extending action beyond the classroom and organizing. Radical students should further collaborate with like-minded teachers, and work to circulate publications and create radical clubs throughout their school. If we wait for the administration to make the first move we will find ourselves waiting for eternity, for they have no compulsion to transform a system as capable of fostering obedience as this one. Change can only be made through a grassroots initiative composed of both students and teachers. Just because high school students have yet to organize themselves does not mean we are incapable of doing so. In fact, the ease by which we brought hundreds of students into the street showcases our ability to do so. We have the means to organize, and are only absent of the conviction. As soon as faith gives way to reality, and radical voices emerge to fill the vacuum it leaves behind, it will only be a matter of time before that conviction is realized.
Marco LaGrotta is a high school student in Toronto.