Charlie Stephens is an English teacher at Tennyson High School in Hayward, California. He recently invited me to correspond with his class. I’d like to share with you my letter to his students:
Dear Mr. Stephens’ Class:
My name is Sean Swain and I’m writing to you from captivity in Ohio. I’m hoping Mr. Stephens is kind enough to share my letter with all of you.
I was sent to prison in 1991 for killing a man in self-defense after he broke into my home. Ohio law says self-defense isn’t a crime, but the man I killed had powerful, political relatives– and I didn’t. So, even though I’m not a criminal and I was provably not in the wrong, I came to prison anyway.
Since coming to prison, I have attempted to change the world from here. Friends of mine have a website with my writings posted there. Something I wrote recently received three thousand views in the first hour. I do a weekly radio segment on the Final Straw radio show and it is globally syndicated, so I get mail from all over the world. Recently, a book I co-wrote with another prisoner was published.
I believe that no matter where you are, no matter what has happened to you, good or bad or really bad, we all have a duty to impact the world. No matter what the obstacles in our way, we have to keep struggling to create the future we want to see. I try to do that from prison, and I encourage you to do that right now, from right where you are.
We are taught that we “inherit” this world from the people who came before us. I think this idea is wrong. I think it is better to say that this world is loaned to us by our children, by our grandchildren, and by their children. This world belongs to them, and they let us borrow it for a time, and that means we have to care for it and create of it the world that our children and grandchildren deserve.
None of us get a free pass.
We each have personal power. If we don’t exercise our personal power, if we don’t raise our voices to be heard, then our silence makes us accomplices in how the world is. Our silence makes us participants in the injustices and suffering. Can you march into adulthood, working and shopping and dying, without raising your voices against the injustices and suffering in this world? For your sake, I hope not.
You might wonder what you can do from a classroom in Hayward, California. Let’s consider…
Did you know that even though most– if not all –of you are under 18, you can still be executed as an adult? If you’re 14 years old, state courts are allowed to say that you “think like an adult” if you get accused of crimes, and because you “think like an adult,” the courts can treat you like an adult– put you on trial and even execute you. In Alabama, a 14 yar-old was put in the electric chair. He was too small, so they had to put a book on the chair for him to sit on.
Politicians can decide that it’s okay to kill you like an adult, but when it’s time for them to run for office, you’re too young to vote. Does that sound fair? You don’t have the chance to vote politicians out of office who one day may decide whether to kill you or not.
You can be executed because you “think like an adult,” but where is that test for “thinking like an adult” if you want driving privileges sooner… or voting rights… or drinking privileges? If the voting age was 14, do you think all of these politicians would continue doing nothing about gun violence while school shooting after school shooting takes more lives? If the voting age was 14, those lawmakers would come to your classroom to find out how to earn your votes.
They would find a solution to gun violence… or lose their jobs. Who knows? One of you in this classroom might run against them… and win.
How do you get the voting age lowered to 14? Well, rights are never given. Rights are always taken. So, you have to take the power into your own hands if you really want it.
We all have personal power. Each of you, with personal power, can work with others who have their own personal power. That’s called collective power. Then you have to realize that adults don’t run the schools. You do. Schools are only schools if students show up. If students don’t show up, the school is just an abandoned building with a lot of desks in it.
Since you run the schools and have personal and collective power, what do you think would happen if high school students across the country walked out of school? I don’t mean a symbolic, 17-minute walk-out– which is cool, I guess –but I mean a real walk-out, where the students make demands and refuse to go back to class until those demands are met. What if you did that? Do you realize, the whole social and economic system of the country would be in your hands?
What if you collectively said, for example, “We want the voting age lowered to 14 years old…” Or, “We want bump-stocks and semi-automatic rifle sales banned, with background checks for any gun-sale anywhere…” Or, “We want a school curriculum that is responsive to our real learning needs, one that gives us purpose and empowerment, not one that makes some of us feel alienated and useless and turns some students into potential shooters…” Or, “We want our teachers to be as valued and well-paid as our sports stars…”
Imagine the radical change you could demand if you could unite high school students in a common agenda and bring on a national strike. Imagine how you could make the world we live in safer, more fair. We would be a little closer to the world our grandchildren deserve for loaning their world to us.
Something to think about.
The ground you inhabit right now is liberated territory.
The truth is dangerous.
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Feel free to share this idea with high school students everywhere.
This is Sean Swain from Warren Corruptional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio. If you’re listening, you ARE the resistance…
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