EVERETT — When Jennifer Dow Himstedt sees posts on Facebook disparaging teenagers, she thinks about the young people in her classroom at Cascade High School.
She recently asked them to share stories about events that deeply affected them, or even changed their lives.
She heard about becoming homeless. Neighbors calling police on fighting parents. A nephew surviving a brain tumor.
Several of the teenagers lost loved ones to suicide.
Months ago, Himstedt planned a unit for her sophomore English classes about Malala Yousafzai, the 20-year-old Nobel laureate from Pakistan. In 2012, Yousafzai, then 15, was shot in the head by the Taliban because she had been speaking publicly about girls’ rights to education.
Himstedt applied for a grant from the Everett Public Schools Foundation, with help from English teacher Mike Cane and librarian Amalia Pimenta. They called their work, “Understanding Lessons On Peace and Courage: The Malala Project.” The $1,000 grant went toward copies of Yousafzai’s memoir, “I Am Malala,” a best-seller.
Himstedt was aware that some of the topics in the book — war, politics, assassination — might be tough to talk about. However, she had no way of knowing that national news would make a discussion about violence and young people all the more pressing, and personal. Current events connect with the literature.
In the mid-1990s, Himstedt spent her freshman year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. On Feb. 14, a former student there brought a military-style rifle to school and killed 17 people. Teenagers died in the halls Himstedt used to walk.
Yousafzai spoke in 2016 at the University of Washington. She told those gathered that you don’t know how much your voice matters until someone tells you to be quiet. In her book, she promotes peaceful resolution to conflict. She draws on the teachings of her Islamic faith.
Her message makes Davis Eubanks, one of Himstedt’s students, think about his family. They’ve always used their words to solve problems, he said.
Yet people seeking answers through civil conversation sometimes have to face others who resort to violence. No one has to explain that to teenagers.
The students are keeping journals during the project, answering prompts. “I wish everything could be solved peacefully, but no,” one wrote in gold ink.
“In an ideal world, peaceful discussion would always be the answer to conflict,” Jacy Allen wrote in her journal. “But since we live in such an imperfect world, most people in power advocate violence and attempt to silence those who would rather fight with words.”
The book “shows and tells that harsh ways are not the right way to go,” David Trach wrote in his journal, “and simply showing good feelings and having good intentions makes your life better and impacts you as a person.”
One journal prompt read, “What cause strikes at your heart and causes you to speak up?”
Himstedt wrote it long before students around the country began planning walkouts this month and next to protest gun violence. Another journal guide asked students what law they would change.
Each day, Himstedt has looked at the lessons, and “everything is almost matching” with real-world events, she said. On Feb. 27, she read aloud a passage that tells the reader if you believe in something greater than yourself, your voice multiplies, even after death.
When Yousafzai was shot, she was riding in the back of a van carrying her home from school. The gunman asked the girls, “Who is Malala?” before firing three times, point-blank.
“When I read this section, I think of your school buses, the yellow ones,” Himstedt said.
The teacher pushes through her emotions about her former high school, she said, because it’s important to talk — and speak out — about difficult things. And that means taking complicated questions from thinking teens.
Michelle Garcia-Burgos referenced the American Revolution. Didn’t the nation’s founders use violence?
Yousafzai says, “Don’t fight violence with violence.” Garcia-Burgos agrees in general, but sometimes those who play by the rules lose to their enemies who don’t, she said.
“Sometimes fighting back is the only way to bring change,” she said.
The next day, Himstedt invited her fifth-period class to discuss what seemed different about the Florida shootings and the news coverage that followed, compared to previous school shootings.
They all agreed: Teens are speaking out.
“This seems like the time for a lot of people,” Himstedt said. “If that’s true for you guys as well, it’s awesome.”
Losses and gains
Near the end of February, the first period honors class was sorted into groups. Together, they needed to find passages that supported literary themes. The teens jumped between the assignment, other classes, homework deadlines, who had finished reading the memoir and who hadn’t, and who has learned to do their own laundry.
Jonathan Lopez, Esther Martinez and Aumnia Alissa shared the theme of “losses and gains.”
Martinez read a line from the book about finding hope when you’re afraid. Yousafzai and her family lost their safety and their home. Yousafzai’s friends faced similar challenges in finishing their education, but they didn’t find the same path out, Martinez said.
Yousafzai lost access to school but gained a way to share her thoughts with the world, Alissa said. She noted Yousafzai’s age — around the same as theirs when she was shot, and not much older than they are now. Yousafzai started college last fall at Oxford, one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
Yousafzai and her family gained attention from around the world, but it came at a cost, Martinez said.
“That’s correct,” Alissa said. “Let’s write that down, but more in detail.”
Himstedt is among more than a dozen staff members at Cascade who have devoted time to recognizing and working with trauma in young people.
Everyone at school has to remember to check on one another, and often, especially during tough times, she told her classes.
Each day, she tries to stand by her classroom door and greet every student, even if it’s just for a few seconds. It’s something she can do, knowing that most of what happens in their lives is outside her classroom.
Some experiences connect generations.
“Do people still flip each other off?” she asked one class.
Someone called back: “All the time.”
Today, people also can be mean with texting and Snapchat, Himstedt said. It’s the medium that’s changed — not human nature.
“Writing notes, that’s what we used to do …,” she said. “Three-way phone calls. O.M.G.”
Then, the teacher turned to read her students another chapter. Yousafzai grew up in a place and a time where she worried about her school getting bombed.
And yet she was just another teenager, standing up for her beliefs, another instance when someone “turned wrath on a child.”
In their own words
Cascade High School teacher Jennifer Dow Himstedt’s sophomore English students shared their reactions, in person and in journals, as they read “I Am Malala,” a memoir by Malala Yousafzai. Yousafzai, an advocate for peace and for girls’ education, survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban. The students also read the poem, “First They Came,” about speaking out for others during the Nazi occupation.
Aumnia Alissa: “She lost her education.”
Jacy Allen: “In an ideal world, peaceful discussion would always be the answer to conflict. But since we live in such an imperfect world, most people in power advocate violence and attempt to silence those who would rather fight with words.”
Davis Eubanks: “She’s really courageous about what she believes in.”
Michelle Garcia-Burgos: “She’s saying ‘Don’t fight violence with violence.’ I agree but sometimes if you play by the rules … and your enemy doesn’t … you keep losing. Sometimes fighting back is the only way to bring change.”
Jonathan Lopez: “People don’t want to help people, but they expect help. Why would you expect help if you’re not going to help people?”
Esther Martinez: “It’s so sad.”