A Grandpa's-Eye View of the March for Our Lives

He hadn't been to a demonstration since the early '60s, but the energy of the post-Parkland movement drove him to go.

A man wearing a "March for Our Lives" pin, surrounded by a crowd in front of the National Gallery of Art
Rachel Gutman / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When I asked my mother and my grandfather how the Parkland shooting made them feel, they both said nearly the same thing: “It felt like an attack on the integrity of [my] memories,” said my mom. “It interfered with those pleasant thoughts of living there,” my grandpa said.

When my mom was a teenager, she lived with her parents in Coral Springs, Florida. Their house was one mile away from what’s now Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They had moved around a bit as a family—first from New York to Florida, and then in the Fort Lauderdale area. But, as my mom put it, “When I think of home, I think of Coral Springs.” My grandpa told me that their Coral Springs house “was the growing-up house where we as a family ... established who we are.”

Maybe that connection is what made my grandpa book a flight to Washington as soon as he heard about the March for Our Lives, even though he hadn’t been to a demonstration since college in the early 1960s. (He knows he joined a group of students who shut down a bridge, but he can’t remember why.) The last time he participated in an event of national importance was when he and my grandmother drove to Washington in 1963 to pay their respects to President Kennedy. (The line was too long for them to make it inside the Capitol, so they turned around and went home.) My grandpa didn’t go to the 1963 March on Washington because he “didn’t think it was that important at the time.”

But after the Parkland shooting, my grandpa told me, “I said to myself, you know what, you have missed so many moments in history because you hesitated and didn’t pay attention. Don’t miss this one.”

As we made our way to the march on Saturday morning, my grandpa seemed overwhelmed, but determined to participate, to be a part of the mass of people filling up the street. He bought pins from a vendor on a corner. He proudly told the volunteers that, yes, he was registered to vote. When I suggested a shortcut, he told me he’d prefer to stay with the crowd.

I was worried it would all be too much for him—the claustrophobia, the performances, the chants, the standing in place. I inherited my constant need to be actively doing something from my grandfather, so being hemmed in by other humans on all sides, waiting for something to start, doesn’t appeal to either of us. At one point, my grandpa even pulled out his phone and asked me to show him how he could check into the march on Facebook. There wasn’t enough service, of course, but it touched me that, as he struggled to do something, anything, to help, he turned to what he sees as the domain of young people.

The fidgeting, the turning his head in circles, the asking every person he accidentally bumped into where they had come from—it all stopped once the students started speaking. My grandpa was entranced. He clapped harder than I’ve ever seen him clap for 11-year-old Naomi Wadler. He cried for Emma González.

The essential thing to know here is that my grandfather loves children—much more than the level typical of doting grandparents. Often, when I call him, he will spend the whole time on the phone telling me about a new child he’s met at his church’s soup kitchen, how kind this one is, how smart that one is, how another reminds him of me or my sister.

Over the last couple of years, a combination of things—the development of my own political interests, my grandmother’s death, the current state of the American government—has led my grandpa to tell me, nearly every time I see him, how important it is to support young people when they try to make a change. Since the day he decided he was coming to Washington, he’s been telling me he believes in “these kids,” how their very kid-ness will be the reason they triumph.

My grandpa is convinced that children are inherently unwilling to take “no” for an answer, and that this stubbornness is what will drive the post-Parkland movement. He calls this arrogance, but says it’s a good thing. He says that this arrogance is something that brings the very young and the very old together—both have a sense that nothing truly terrible can be done to them. All kids want, according to my grandpa, is to be treated like adults, to be given a task with which they can make themselves useful and proud. “Those kids, fate gave them a job to do,” he said. “And they’re doing it.”

Even as my grandpa told me how he supported the kids on stage, how he was impressed by them and admired them, I sensed that he was also proud, the same way he’d be proud of me if I were the one making a speech. “I felt like each and every one of those kids up there could’ve been my grandkids,” he told me. And he thinks that feeling is spreading among the older generation. He says he sees it among his heavily Republican, heavily senior community in Florida.

I paid special attention to everyone I saw with wrinkles or white hair in the crowd on Saturday, and when I overheard their conversations, many were talking about how they’d been fighting for gun control for decades. Sure, the post-Parkland movement is reaching an older generation, I thought, but only the ones who already believe in this cause, who have spent their whole lives protesting. But my grandpa insists that his generation will come around to this movement of children.

I thought of the 61-year-old Florida legislator’s aide who accused Emma González and David Hogg of being actors. I thought of the white-haired candidate for state legislature in Maine who referred to González as a “skinhead lesbian.” At the march, I still didn’t believe my grandfather.

That is, until about an hour afterward, when my mom sent me a photo of a family friend who, like my grandpa, had never been one for demonstrations. This friend had been spotted at the March for Our Lives, holding a hand-drawn sign high over her head, with block letters spelling out the name of her granddaughter, a high-school student in Boston: “For Alexa.”