Parkland teenagers taking on the world- and winning

This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

We haven’t heard the last from survivors of the deadly February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Dozens of the high school students who were thrust into a mortality crisis before they could order a beer at a bar have graduated from teenage angst to social justice, and they’re continuing to sing truth to power while pulling together to help one another to heal.

Recently, Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Pena, the teenage songsters who wrote “Shine,” the anthem of their movement #MSDstrong, performed in Washington, D.C., at the Fords Theater annual gala. They sang directly to Vice President Pence and FLOTUS, demanding change in gun laws. Then they joined a chorus of classmates from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to sing at the New York Public Theater’s annual gala, following the chorus’ surprise appearance at the Tony Awards that won them a rousing standing ovation.

The musical partners invited me later into their pocket-sized hotel room in Times Square, aghast at the shrinkage of space in our island city.

“Is this what a New York apartment looks like?”

For months, the dominant emotion in their lives was sadness. Then anger: “We’ve gone through an experience that someone who’s 80 might not have gotten close to going through,” exclaimed Sawyer, “so they can’t lecture us on what gun laws should be because they haven’t gone through this!” She plucks at the strings in her jeans. “But lately, I’ve been feeling inspired.”

And as of this week, the two drama students have started volunteering at Camp Shine, a ground-breaking summer camp program that families of the school have launched to help the children heal through the arts. “We had to find a way to keep these kids together,” says Wendy Simon Garrity, mother of Sawyer.

Her instinct was spot-on. Children of trauma most often shut down; they can’t express their feelings, so they withdraw into numbness, or wrestle with the inner crisis of fight or flight. When the families connected with Jessica Asch, a board-certified trauma therapist at New York University, she endorsed their hunch.

“The antidote to trauma is community,” Asch believes. “We have to meet these kids where they are and keep them together.” Her broad experience in working with adolescents, veterans, and other PTSD sufferers including Holocaust survivors has shown her how effective it is to use various art therapies to encourage trauma victims to be in touch with their real feelings and to find support in the embrace of their fellow survivors.

“‘In the beginning, the only people who supported the civil rights movement were a few whites and mostly African Americans,’ Sawyer said. ‘It was them against the world. And that’s how it feels—it’s just us teenagers against the world.’”

“Parkland has had so much media attention, these kids haven’t had an opportunity to be messy, they’ve been so busy performing,” for their cause, says the psychologist. An academic research study will be conducted on the Parkland program by the trauma center at University of Miami. The long-range hope is it will result in a curriculum that can be made available to other communities shaken by their children’s exposure to violent death.

At the camp, Garrity and Pena are joined by 35 students, six of them among the wounded, who are being guided in music therapy, art, drama, and storytelling and other relevant artistic expressions such as graffiti and photography that are therapeutic for victims of trauma. Their charity, Shine MSD, has raised just enough money to provide a two-week camp. They hope to attract donors who will fund another month of the camp to reach all the traumatized students. The program is designed by some of the nation’s leading creative arts therapists, and it is thus far supported by the royalty fees earned by their song “Shine” on iTunes, and from donations by a few celebrity benefactors like Miley Cyrus.

Andrea Pena & Sawyer Garrity– songwriters of the #MDSstrong anthem "SHINE"– high five in Times Square.

Andrea Pena & Sawyer Garrity– songwriters of the #MDSstrong anthem "SHINE"– high five in Times Square.

The two girls told me the story of how their celebrated anthem came to be.

Last Valentine’s Day had started out for 15-year-old Andrea Pena in an exchange of gifts with her boyfriend. At school everyone was cracking jokes about being single, passing around a box of Pringles and saying, “I’m a single pringle.” When a weird second fire alarm sent her and Sawyer and scores of kids and adults outdoors, the girls joked, “Oh, Culinary burned down,” referring to kids in the Food Services department who often burn while they learn.

The words “Code Red” drove them back inside. Sawyer Garrity, then 16 and all of 5-foot-1, jumped over a table to get into an office in the Drama Department that turned out to be full of windows. For the next hour and half, she and Andrea and 10 others crouched beneath a desk while hearing the shots and screams of friends’, sounds that would never be muted in their minds. Seventeen people, including teachers, lay dead.

I asked them, as many do, “Do you think you can, through your art and music, convey the reality to others that his might happen to you, to your school, to your children?” Sawyer replied solemnly, “I don’t think we could ever push the feelings that we felt onto other people. No one can relate unless it’s happened to you or to your child.” Both girls admitted that when their drama teacher, Melody Herzfeld, tried before the shooting to rehearse them into imagining how they should respond to a gunman’s attack, they paid no attention.

“Oh, it’s never going to happen here,” they thought.

The first two days after the massacre, the girls had spent in solitary anguish, slouched in their separate homes, Andrea bent over her Yamaha keyboard (“I’ve never had a big fancy piano”), Sawyer glumly picking at her guitar. She has been writing songs since she was 6 years old. Her father, Joe Garrity, told me he’d scratch his head when his little daughter would emerge from her bedroom and say, “I’ve got the bridge!” But Sawyer, who will be a senior this fall, admitted to me that she had never taken her guitar seriously until she faced a mortality crisis decades before she was ready to cope. The two classmates began texting each other.

“We have to do something,” Sawyer wrote.

Andrea, a rising junior, fiddled around with a few chords on her keyboard. “This could be something,” she thought. She didn’t dare voice the intention of writing a song; she had never done that before. So she sent Sawyer a voice memo of a riff. It touched something in the baby-faced girl with spigots of curls falling over her eyes. Sawyer played those chords again and again until some lyrics popped into her mind.

“You, you threw my city away…”

She texted them back to Andrea, the granddaughter of people who fled Castro’s Cuba and found refuge in Puerto Rico (though young Andrea never wanted to learn Spanish when her kindergarten friends in Florida teased her for her accent).

Andrea sent another voice memo, more chords. Sawyer’s sorrow suddenly released a powerful chorus of resistance:

You’re not gonna knock us down

We’ll get back up again

You may have hurt us

But I promise we’ll be stronger

A couple of days later, they got together and finished off the song as if it all came naturally.

They first shared “Shine” with the public at a town hall a week after the massacre. With 15 minutes to teach the lyrics to a chorus before performing, they weren’t even aware that CNN would be broadcasting their song to untold millions around the world, beyond the 7,000 in their audience. But they had been well taught how to hold presence during a performance. And they had words ready to stake their claim to being, not just authentic, but real:

We’re, we’re gonna stand tall,

Gonna raise up our voices so we never, ever fall

We’re done with all your little games

We’re tired of hearing that we’re too young to ever make a change.

The audience response was rapturous. But the most touching moment for the girls came when the news anchor of CNN, Jake Tapper, came down to their dressing room and told them, “That was the most moving song I’ve ever heard.”

Belonging to a rather nondescript new generation, the girls told me they don’t even know what their “name” means—“It’s just a letter. Gen Z.”

I suggested they should be called Gen Now.

“I like that,” Andrea said. Sawyer chimed in: “I like that one.”

They recalled Jimmy Fallon saying at the school’s graduation ceremony, “Everyone’s saying you guys are the future, but I feel like you guys are the present.” They liked that, too. I proposed they might belong to a Third Culture generation.

“I definitely think so,“ Sawyer said. “Not just because of our awareness of gun violence, but also the way we’ve been speaking up for Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights and all. We’re so open to new culture now and more willing to listen—and we’re not as closed off and ignorant about other people. It’s like we’re coming together and embracing each other more than anything before.”

But of course, it’s not unlike anything that came before. And the girls have recently recognized that—it’s called the civil rights movement. And they want to build on it.

“In the beginning, the only people who supported the civil rights movement were a few whites and mostly African Americans,” Sawyer said. “It was them against the world. And that’s how it feels right now—it’s just us teenagers against the world.”

But they both notice more and more adults coming to their performances and wanting to learn from them, just as they find themselves learning from their parents’ generation and their fearless protests against the Vietnam War. “There was nothing ever like that before, where young people and then people in general were coming together and standing together,” Sawyer mused. “So powerful.”