Nonviolence is not just about protest

“Nonviolence is not just about protest.” As I teach my high-school freshman English students about Gandhi and MLK and Thoreau, I tried to be very careful to temper it with the other side to this philosophy. Life is more than just reactionary, oppositional forces, and so it is for nonviolence. If nonviolence is only about resistance and protest, then it will never help to create the world it envisions – it will simply stop a worse world from existing. Nonviolence, like humans, must be productive in order to be successful. I did not want to infuse them with a cynical, angry, rebellious fire without also making them passionate to change their community for the better.

This weekend, my students volunteered at the local zoo. Though few were there on time, 30 students showed up for this 3-hour volunteering session from 9-12 on a Sunday morning. I was amazed, amazed by their presence, amazed by their enthusiasm, amazed by their interest and their work ethic and their excitement for volunteering. They were cleaning filthy cages, feeding ungrateful monkeys, sweeping dusty paths, making toys only to be torn apart by hyperactive parrots, and yet they served cheerfully and joyfully because they had internalized this lesson much deeper than I had imagined. Many of them had never been in the zoo before, though they’ve lived here all their lives. Likewise, many had never volunteered before in their 14 or 15 years of existence.

Driving home at the end of the day, my students’ questions about “when we would get to do this again” still ringing in my ears, I realized this was the most important thing I have taught in my teaching career. The writing’s important, but only as it is directed towards something positive; reading’s fundamental, but service is even more rudimentary; communicating with words and letters on a page is second to communicating through service or acts of love.

Nonviolence is so much more than protest. It took my students to teach me that. Who you are, ultimately, is not what you stood against but to what you contributed.

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