Leaving Kent State Discussion Questions

The following questions are provided for use by book clubs and classrooms, or for anyone who would like to delve deeper into the America Rachel faced at the beginning of 1970.

1. The shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, shocked the American public at a time when civil unrest, protests, and even domestic terrorism were occurring on an almost daily basis. But despite that shock, the country was divided about whether the students or the National Guard were to blame. In what ways do you think people’s opinions were guided by the lens with which they came to the events of that weekend? Do you think whether someone was conservative or liberal would affect how they would interpret the events of that weekend? Why or why not? How do our preconceived biases affect how we interpret news?

2. Rachel talks about her art being her “voice.” How do you think people can and should use their artistic talents to effect social change? What about their celebrity? Should art be something that challenges us to evaluate our social norms and expectations?

3. Social injustice is a major theme in LKS. In what ways do the injustices of the Vietnam War, both for Americans and Vietnamese, mimic the injustices that were occurring in the U.S. at the time?

4. President Nixon said after the shootings at KSU that “tragedy is invited when dissent turns to violence.” What do you think this means? Does violence by protesters at one level justify retaliation by law enforcement at the same or another level? What should the rules of engagement be for law enforcement dealing with protesters? When is it acceptable for law enforcement to shoot protesters? Does it make a difference if it is police or military personnel?

5. Allison Krause had protested the Vietnam War before the weekend of May 4, 1970. The day before she was killed by the National Guard, Allison told a National Guard officer that flowers were “better than bullets.” Do you think she was being naïve? Do you think she understood the danger she was in? When, if ever, should a protester in a free country like the U.S.  believe that she is risking her life in order to protest? Were the students at KSU naïve in thinking that the National Guard wouldn’t shoot or would only shoot rubber bullets?

6. What would you protest and when would you be willing to risk your life for it? What if the consequences were instead imprisonment, would that change your willingness to protest? What if you might be injured in a way that you would spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair?

7. Many of the students who protested the Vietnam War were young men who had a personal stake in the matter as they were draft eligible. There were many people, however, who had already served or were not eligible to serve themselves who also felt compelled to protest. What would compel you to protest for someone else? What degree of personal stake would you need to feel to protest, particularly if it might be dangerous? Would you risk your life to protest for a friend? A sibling? A brother? A boyfriend or girlfriend? What if you had survived Vietnam? Would you have protested to save others from it, even if you knew you were risking your life?

8. In many ways the racial, social, and political unrest of 1969-1970 is very similar to problems we face in the U.S today. In what ways are these two time periods the same? How are they different? Were you surprised at the similarities between today and Rachel’s time period?

9. Does reading Rachel’s story make you feel differently about protests that are happening in our world today? If yes, how?

10. Do you think that what happened at KSU on May 4, 1970, could happen again in the U.S.? Or do you think that law enforcement would never repeat that kind of use of force again?

11. The KSU shootings occurred at a time when television was able to bring news fairly rapidly into American homes. Do you think how the shootings were reported initially affected people’s opinions on what had happened and who was to blame? How hard do you think it is to change your mind about an event once you have heard a report about it, even if you later find out that report was erroneous?

12. How important is it to democracy to have a free press? How important is it that the press “get it right” when reporting on unfolding events? What do you think the impact is on people when the press does not report facts accurately?

13. There are still many questions about the events of May 4th, particularly whether the shooting was premeditated, or what caused so many Guardsmen to turn and fire at the same time into the same general direction of the largest part of the crowd. How does this uncertainty affect our understanding of the event? Does the mystery make it more compelling? Would knowing the full truth change how we see this event? Why or why not? No Guardsman who was there that day has ever given a full account of what happened or why. Do you think they are hiding something? If it were you, would you tell your version of the events, even if it were posthumously through a letter? Would your decision depend on whether you were admitting guilt of some kind versus simply stating that you didn’t honestly know why you fired? What if you knew that the reason you fired was based on a mistaken belief that you were in danger?

14. Fate is a motif throughout LKS. Find passages that discuss fate or destiny. How do you think the shootings at KSU were inevitable? How could they have been prevented? If the National Guard had not shot unarmed students that day, what do you think would have happened instead? Do you think the KSU shootings helped to end the Vietnam War? Did they change the way people thought and talked about protesting and dissent?

15. Rachel tells Evan that he’s a hero for risking his life for others, but he tells her it was the code they lived by, that it didn’t make him heroic. When he risks his life to save hers, she tells him again that he was heroic, but he again denies it, saying he did what he had to do to protect what was most important to him. Evan tells Rachel that she is heroic for forging ahead through uncertainty, and for always trying to help others without regard for herself. What does it mean to be heroic? Is Rachel heroic? Is Evan? What about the students who protested at KSU? What about the students who helped those who had been injured? What about those who refused to let the shootings be forgotten?