I’m sure you’ve seen the front-page New York Times story about the traumatic aftermath of school shootings. It’s about the second wave of tragedy for Parkland students and all the other 223,000 survivors, most of whom have been left to deal with their own demons. Some of whom isolate themselves, and the most tragic of all, the most recent suicides of two Stoneman Douglas students and the father of a seven-year-old Sandy Hook victim who took his life this week, seven years after the killings of toddlers.
Last summer, I applied for a Fellowship in Audio Podcasting by Stony Brook University. "Why?" friends asked, "Aren’t you a little too, you know…"
Yes, I'm in my early 80s, but I’m still passionate about learning new things. That motive goes back to 1968, when my mentor, Margaret Mead, gave me the marching orders for my journalistic life:
“Whenever you hear about a national tragedy-- an attack, an assassination, a political uprising, a surprise election— drop everything, get on the first bus, train, plane and stand at the edge of the abyss, look down, and you will see your culture turned inside out.”
I’ve followed that dictum-- from joining Sen. Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign shortly before his assassination; flying to Derry, Northern Ireland, just in time for Bloody Sunday; shadowing the night commander of Ground Zero for months after 9-11; following the four widows of Middletown, NJ. to D.C. as they demanded a 9-11 Commission, etc.
But how, without intruding on their grief, could I see our culture turned inside out when 14 school children and three staff were brutally murdered in Parkland, Florida? Kismet: Peter Yarrow-- of Peter, Paul and Mary-- one of my dearest friends, invited me to join him in Parkland, last May, to meet with a group of music and arts students, still traumatized and feeling utterly powerless.
I jumped at the chance.
The troubadour had a brilliant idea: He would invite a dozen of his most dedicated activist singer-songwriters to join him in mentoring the teenagers to write their own songs of sorrow, of anger, of rebellion. I was the only journalist, a silent partner, with nothing but my old iPhone to record the whole experience.
From day one, it felt historic. Peter, the magic dragon, captured the imagination of these solitary survivors, mute and somber as they sat with arms wrapped around their knees. He recreated for them the solidarity of the '60s Civil Rights Movement. How? MUSIC! Without music, he told them, echoing the words of Cong. John Lewis, the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings.
The next 48 hours saw the kids knit into small groups and disappear into separate rooms in the home of student Sam Zeif, who had lost his best friend, Joaquin Oliver. Less than two hours later, the students came together and performed four original songs, accompanied by guitar and cello, violin, drums and piano. The magic of solidarity was suddenly alive and throbbing in that room.
I couldn’t wait to get back to New York and apply for the fellowship. This story demanded a more intimate form of communication than print. A new form in the aural tradition of old radio and folk music. PODCASTING -- just right!