Learning Through Storytelling: Parkland, FL

To be completely honest with you, the reader, I was anxious when I was tasked with writing this post. The goal was to share my thoughts on a story told by Lorena Sanabria. Lorena is currently a thoughtful, sharp, and poised high school junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Of course, that school is forever known in our collective consciousness as “Parkland.” The anxiety I felt manifested itself as self-doubt: what of value can I even bring to this conversation? I decided the best way to recount Lorena’s story was through the reactions of the people listening to it.

As an aside, I should make it clear that poise is not a word one would have used to describe me in high school. In fact, asking any random sampling of people I attended high school with to describe me would get you one of two answers. “Isn’t that the kid who wore gym shorts to school in all temperatures” would be closely followed by “Oh yeah, the really sweaty one who never once looked calm or relaxed!” For the record, wearing gym shorts to school proved that I am extremely tough (It didn’t and I’m not).

Going in, everyone knew that Lorena was extremely tough. That’s why it was so stunning to watch people react to her story. Everyone expected to be moved, to feel pity, to hurt. When our country’s children describe watching their terrified classmates sob while in hiding, it’s hard to feel much else. Yet as Lorena talked to Joffe at our company retreat, then to students and administrators as she toured a couple of schools, I watched predetermined sympathy turn into focused emotion, hope for the future, and resolve. Resolve to keep our students safe. Resolve to keep our children from feeling like their time in school was time in a high-security prison with more geometry (one of the only reasons to go to prison--no required geometry). Resolve to throw away our hand-wringing and replace it with definitive action. As a company dedicated to helping schools weather the worst days imaginable, we felt intensely that we learned just as much about school safety and crisis management from Lorena’s words as any other organization or individual we hear from.

Lorena’s action is currently taking the form of a group called Stories Untold. Nearly 40% of Parkland’s 3,000 member student body is nonwhite, and yet most of the stories we heard after the attack focused on white students. This parallels our country’s larger discussions of violence, gun-related or otherwise. Follow any argument about gun violence on social media, and observe how any mention of racial or ethnic minorities is intended as a cudgel for political purposes, rather than a mourning of the lives upended by violence.

Stories Untold amplifies the stories of victims that the media never told, and likely never will. Crucially, these stories often come in the own words of the survivors. I don’t want to undersell what an overwhelmingly positive development this is. Hearing directly from afflicted individuals (and removing the filter of the media) takes us away from pulpy retellings of violence trying to attract viewers and toward a deeper understanding of how events affect other human beings. In the medium-term, Stories Untold hopes to shed a light on other stories of gun violence around the country, particularly on the communities of color disproportionately hurt by it. In Lorena’s words “We’re not just doing this for the Douglas shooting, we’re doing this for any type of gun violence. We’ve gotten messages from people saying ‘This is helping so much. I’m so glad I can finally share my story.’”

Today, the news takes place at breakneck speed, contributing to our sense of isolation in the modern world.  With story after story crashing our brains like waves on the beach, there is an instinct to turn away from it all for our own sanity. At their core, however, these news stories are the stories of our world. More specifically, they are the stories of the people in our world. Our communities. Our brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, friends, family. Rather than submitting to isolation, we need to immerse ourselves in these stories. We need to listen and to respond authentically to what we hear, knowing that stories are the connective threads to our society. This fall, Lorena Sanabria will be a thoughtful, sharp, and poised high school senior. I can’t wait to read the rest of her story, no matter what it is or how she tells it.