Back when I was in high school, I learned to play the 12-string guitar.

I’d strum and sing for hours on end. I loved every minute of it, but none more than when my large, loving family, Mom and Dad included, would gather around in the living room and belt out Bob Dylan’s timeless masterpiece “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

Our favorite verse:

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land

And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.

Your old road is rapidly agin’.

Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand

For the times they are a-changin’.

We’d all look at Mom and Dad with mischievous twinkles in our eyes – Ann and Mike, both in college, Maripeg and myself, a year or two away from following in their footsteps, and the four younger siblings we affectionately called the “little kids.”

Mom and Dad, God rest their souls, would smile back at us and sing all the louder.

It remains, nearly a half-century later, among my most treasured memories.

Dylan’s genius came to mind on Thursday when I read that students and staff in Maine School Administrative District 13 will be penalized for skipping class if they participate in the national school walkout planned for March 14 to protest the nation’s epidemic of gun violence.

“As a school it’s not within our role to promote political viewpoints,” Superintendent Virginia Rebar, who presides over public schools in Moscow and Bingham, told Morning Sentinel reporter Emily Higginbotham in an interview.

So there you have it, folks. Kids gathering outside schools to demand an end to kids getting killed inside schools is now officially a “political viewpoint.”

One wonders, if they could still speak, how that would play with the 14 students and three educators mowed down last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Or the countless victims on school campuses around the country who still suffer the emotional wounds inflicted by the AR-15 and other weapons designed for maximum lethality.

My guess is those kids would not consider gun violence political at all. To them, and to their still-grieving families and friends, it’s literally a matter of life or gruesome death.

Yet here we have Superintendent Rebar, following a hastily called meeting with the SAD 13 school board on Tuesday, twisting and torturing everything from the First Amendment to basic logic. All in an effort to keep kids penned inside their classrooms on a day when so many in their generation will rise up and, as Dylan once put it, “shake your windows and rattle your walls.”

Go for it, kids. If we mothers and fathers can’t save this country from itself, then it falls to you to wrestle your own futures away from an entrenched and deep-pocketed gun lobby that sneers at everything from universal background checks to banning high-capacity magazines and rapid-fire bump stocks.

In her letter to the district, Rebar noted that she and other school leaders consulted with their legal counsel. As if that somehow reinforced their moral footing.

“The First Amendment prohibits governmental entities from viewpoint discrimination.” she wrote. “Students and staff having views differing from those of the Walkout would have to have an equal opportunity to express their views. Scheduling a pause in the school day only for those supporting the goals of the Walkout would be legally problematic for the District.”

Interesting take on the First Amendment, Madam Superintendent. The way I read it, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I see nothing mandating a forum for opposing views that apparently no one has even requested.

Rebar also wrote, “We have great reservations about exposing students across the nation to an announced presence outside of locked classrooms and locked buildings considering safety concerns.”

Students across the nation? Now she’s speaking for the 32 schools in Maine and the nearly 2,000 nationwide where the seeds of protest, planted by Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, will simultaneously sprout one month to the day after Parkland?

And about those “safety concerns” stemming from the students’ “announced presence outside of locked classrooms and locked buildings”: Isn’t that what happens every day upon the sounding of the dismissal bell? Why no hand-wringing over that?

The blatantly obvious truth here is that SAD 13’s dictum has little to do with student safety, the nonexistent “fair and balanced” clause in the First Amendment or worries about a brief disruption in the school day that, if handled properly, could be these students’ most educational experience of the academic year.

It’s about parents, of which there are likely many in Moscow and Bingham, who will raise holy hell if they see local kids spilling out into the school parking lot – not in flight of a madman with a gun this time, but in peaceful, preemptive protest of the vulnerability that has haunted them since their first day of kindergarten.

This school-massacre phenomenon, which began with Columbine in 1999, is the only road these kids have ever traveled. For their generation, that road is indeed, as Dylan put it, rapidly agin’.

So hurrah for the young souls brave enough to walk out and, if they must, get dinged for skipping class. For those 17 victims in Parkland, an unexcused absence on the afternoon of Valentine’s Day would have saved their lives.

And hats off to the enlightened educators who plan to let the kids do their thing, perhaps even provide a speaker or two.

In doing so, they won’t just allow a “teachable moment” and cultivate youthful participation in our democracy. They’ll also communicate clearly to this restive generation that their school stands behind them, not against them, in this battle for simple survival.

I remember one day back in May of 1970, just after college students all over the country went on strike to protest the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and the subsequent fatal shooting of four students at Kent State University – not by a lone gunman, mind you, but by soldiers of the Ohio National Guard.

I was a high school sophomore, chowing down with my buddies in the cafeteria, when our principal walked in and announced that a few young men wanted to have a word with us.

One was my older brother Mike, flanked by a few fellow students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Only a year removed from his co-captainship of our high school’s championship football team, Mike now stood in his old cafeteria – his hair noticeably longer, his passion eclipsing even the ferocity he once displayed on the gridiron.

He spoke through a school-provided microphone of the moral bankruptcy of the expanding war. He told us high school is not too young to denounce the lies being told by the Nixon administration. This, he correctly observed, was our time.

I could not have been prouder of my big brother. Propelled by his oratory, I and dozens of my classmates awoke to our newfound responsibility, as young citizens, to demand a new course, a new road, a break from the sordid past.

So, to those Maine students so inclined, this is your moment.

Don’t back down. Protest with all your hearts. Force this country to rethink its infatuation with things that go bang.

Thanks to you, the times they are a-changin’.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

filed under: