ON ‘THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY’
NEWTOWN — In the terrible silence that followed the gunfire at Sandy Hook School in 2012, there were no words — just tears on the faces of Jordan Gomes’ fourth-grade friends.
“We didn’t know what was happening, but we knew,” said Gomes, now a Newtown High School freshman. “It was life-changing, in the simplest sense that I can put it. How do you come back from something like that?”
When Gomes and her classmates who survived the shooting returned to school, the silence was still there.
“Everybody was just like zombies,” Gomes said. “The younger kids didn’t play on the playground anymore. They brought in comfort dogs for us.”
A turning point of sorts arrived a few years later.
“I began to understand the injustice of what happened,” Gomes said of that time. “I mean, it should have never happened. Those kids should still be here now.”
But still the silence was there.
Then something happened on Valentine’s Day that carried the silence away.
A mass shooting of 17 students and staff at a Parkland, Fla., high school was followed by an outcry of youths so pronounced it galvanized Gomes and scores of Newtown teenagers into action.
“I might still feel a little unsafe about speaking out, because I know there are people who say bad things about what we’re doing, like we don’t need gun control, but I will put that aside to save people,” Gomes said. “Because if we get laws changed, it will stop. We won’t have to keep hearing these bad things on the news.”
Led by a small group of Newtown youth who formed a gun-violence-prevention group after Sandy Hook, Gomes and 200 fellow students boarded buses on March 24 to meet survivors of the high school shooting in Parkland at the massive March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.
Jackson Mittleman, a Newtown student leader who has seen membership in the group quadruple to 85 students since the march, said he felt a strong bond with his Florida peers on the stage, in front of 800,000 marchers.
“When we met them we could physically feel it — and I know that sounds like a weird thing to say,” said Mittleman, one of several youths who spoke at the march. “They knew we were from Newtown, and we knew they were from Parkland, and we could physically feel this pain we have experienced, and this empowerment that we were marching in Washington and speaking up against the government, and making change, and not just letting this go.”
Not only was there a special Newtown-Parkland connection, but for the first time, local students were met with something besides pity when they told others where they were from.
“When you tell somebody that you’re from Newtown, you see their face drop, because they feel so bad for you, and it’s an awful feeling,” said Jenny Wadhwa, 16. “But at the march there was a different vibe being from Newtown — people said, ‘Thank you for standing up’ and ‘Thank you for being here today.’ ”
The result, for Wadhwa and her friends in the freshly recharged Junior Newtown Action Alliance, is an ambitious program of activities that includes a nonpartisan voter registration drive for high school seniors, a correspondence project with Florida shooting survivors and the launch of a Humans of Newtown social media feature, based on the popular man-on-the-street website, Humans of New York.
“It will be an opportunity for kids and adults to share stories about Sandy Hook and post it online for the world to see,” said Isabella Wakeman, 16.
The storytelling project is among a half dozen ideas generated at an organizational meeting last week of the Junior NAA.
The initiatives are part of a larger youth-led movement for stricter gun rules that has captivated the nation, and coincided with bipartisanship that has seen three modest gun policy measures signed into law by President Donald Trump.
“The idea is to humanize the impacts of gun violence, and show how one gun doesn’t just affect the people that it hits with bullets, but affects the community as a whole,” Wadhwa said.
What struck Newtown students about Parkland, more than the heartbreak of seeing another community ripped apart by a school shooting, was the bravery teenage survivors showed in the face of deep grief, getting in front of cameras to give their hope a voice.
“I don’t think people realize how vulnerable you need to be to share your story — that seriously takes a huge amount of confidence,” Wadhwa said during a Good Friday interview with fellow student leaders in the home of Po Murray, the chairwoman of the nonprofit Newtown Action Alliance. “I think after Sandy Hook happened, not many of us felt confident enough or ready to tell our stories.”
One reason for the caution students felt was seeing the way survivors’ stories are attacked by conspiracy-theory extremists. Over the years, conspiracy theorists have harassed Newtown families who lost loved ones to the worst crime in modern Connecticut history.
“The Parkland kids and people who have experienced gun violence are so strong,” Gomes said. “They have people attacking them left and right saying, ‘Oh, they’re crisis actors,’ but they are doing what is right, even though a lot of people are against them.”
Newtown High School student Garrett Marino said the support of his peers, his family and his community has given him the courage to use his voice, in spite of the opposition he could encounter.
“I feel like I am strong enough now, and I feel like we are strong enough as a generation, to actually get out there and make a change,” said Marino, 16. “No one really knows what that change will be and if that change will work, but as it stands right now we just can’t tolerate guns as they are in our country, because they are way too lethal and too widely available to everyone.”
Mittleman agrees, saying Newtown youths are on “the right side of history.”
“You can’t say that trying to prevent people from getting senselessly gunned down is wrong,” said Mittleman, 16. “I understand people want to defend themselves, but in no way shape or form has any of us ever said we are out to take all your guns away — ever — or repeal the Second Amendment.”
Tommy Murray believes it’s just a matter of time before Washington lawmakers hear the voices of teenagers in Newtown and Parkland.
That is why Murray thought it was important for Newtown’s youth leaders to meet with their counterparts from Parkland.
“We wanted to turn that connection into something we could use to create change and show Congress and the NRA the voice that they think we don’t have,” said Murray, 16, who spoke at the March for Our Lives event.
Murray, the son of Po Murray, said the Newtown-Parkland meeting was an important moment of unity for the youth movement.
“When I met Emma Gonzalez, the first thing she did was give me a hug, and I could tell that she was just as stressed out on this issue as we are,” said Murray, speaking of one of the highest-profile student leaders from Parkland. “It was important to finally be able to work with people who know how we feel and want the change as badly as we do.”
Danielle Johnson, a Newtown High School sophomore, said the Newtown-Parkland connection has brought the town to a turning point in its own recovery.
She said part of the problem in putting the pieces back together in Newtown after the shootings was people felt all alone.
“It was like a puzzle where the pieces weren’t the same and didn’t fit together,” Johnson said. “Because after that, nothing was the same.”
But something remarkable has happened to the puzzle, Wakeman said.
“When Sandy Hook happened, all of our problems were spilled onto a table in the form of puzzle pieces, and we were missing half the box,” Wakeman said. “We stood there for five years at that table saying, ‘Where is the rest?’ and, ‘What else can we do?’
“Then the kids from Parkland came over and said,‘We have the rest of your pieces.’ And they dumped it on the table and said ‘We will help you figure this out,’” Wakeman said. “And they did. They are finding ways to get our voice heard, and people are starting to listen to us.”