On Friday morning, I was at school early and had already dropped off my things in my locker and grabbed my books before most of the students even arrived. I tried to stand back and watch things like a teacher or like Mr. Higgins, wondering if anything looked out of place. Maybe some kids were dressed a little differently. Maybe there were more kids bringing lunches than there normally would be, especially on a Friday pizza day. But other than that, I thought things looked like any other day. I tried to identify kids who were involved in my plan. Other than the twenty-three I’d talked to, I didn’t really know who else had been recruited, just how many. No one stood out. Nothing would look wrong to someone who didn't know what to look for. I ducked into my first period class before the bell rang.
Lunch was different. Someone scanning the cafeteria would have noticed the changes right away. The funny thing was there were several people doing just that, scanning the cafeteria, making sure everyone stayed in their seat, didn’t get too noisy, and didn’t throw food. But their senses had been so dulled by the day-in, day-out buzz of cafeteria noise that they didn’t notice anything. They didn’t notice that a lot of kids who brought a brown paper bag or a thermos were standing in line to buy lunch anyway. They didn’t notice that the usual rainbow of t-shirts was a little bit lighter, a little bit whiter that day. And they didn’t notice that instead of eating, most kids were just looking at each other or the clock on the wall.
There was nothing special about 12:16. It was just a time I’d picked. If anyone was paying attention at 12:15, they would have noticed a whole cafeteria of high school kids taking the lids off the thermoses they’d borrowed from younger siblings, dug out of the backs to cupboards, or bought new the day before. High school kids just didn’t bring thermoses to school. But no one was paying attention. I was counting on that. And then at 12:16, we did it.
We all stood up. We grabbed our thermoses and poured tomato juice down the fronts of our white t-shirts. In an instant, the room went from sitting to standing, from white to red, and amazingly, from noisy to silent. We all just stood there in silence
The three people in charge didn’t know what to do, so they stood there too. A few ladies from the kitchen popped their heads out the door when the cafeteria went silent, but they retreated back into the kitchen as quickly as they came. Some kids who weren’t in on the plan figured things out and decided to improvise with shared tomato juice or ketchup packets.
Then we grabbed our things and walked out. There was no pushing or shoving. There was no shouting. No one needed a megaphone to tell us what to do or to get our message across. We could have walked across the main hallway and right out the main doors, but we took a longer path that led us by classrooms, through the gym, and finally past the main office. We picked up more along the way, some kids who were already out in the hallways, but more who were in classrooms and decided to get up and leave.
Mr. Higgins was standing outside the main office when we walked by. His eyes stared at me behind the flashing lenses of his glasses, but there was nothing he could do. He certainly couldn’t put all of us in the office and call our mothers. If he did, some of them probably would have joined us. He raised a hand as if trying stop our progress, but then slowly put it down and just watched open mouthed.
We made our way back toward the cafeteria and then out the main doors and down the steps. El Molino High School was set back from the road, and patches of grass and trees and benches isolated it from Front Street. The shade of the trees and a place to sit were inviting, but we passed them by and instead lined the sidewalk on Front Street. There were a lot of us. Some kids had skipped out of an art class and had enough foresight to bring a container of red paint. Students who didn’t have the nerve to leave in the middle of class, walked out of school during a change of classes, and kids who hadn’t seen our parade through the main building were drawn in as they cut across school grounds to their next class.
In a brief moment of panic, I was reminded of the people on the edge of the crowd in San Francisco, those drawn in by the noise who ended up fueling the fire. I thought how quickly someone who hadn’t been in on the original plan could easily turn things for the worse with an angry shout, but I looked left and right down the sidewalks of Front Street and I knew this was a different sort of protest. There were smiles and there was some singing. Without realizing I was doing it, I reached out for the hands of the people on either side of me, and then watched as the hand holding moved in a chain reaction from one person to the next, and then the next.
Cars on Front Street honked horns. Most people rolled down windows and waved or flashed peace signs. Every once in a while someone drove by and shouted, but their anger was drowned out by singing. Lots of kids had brought along notebooks like I had to the pep rally. Signs were made and passed along down the sidewalk. If someone in town hadn’t heard about my blood covered shirt and protest at the pep rally, they certainly knew what we were about once they saw our sidewalk filled with “No War”, “Peace”, and “Soldiers Come Home” signs.
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