Barbershop: How High Schoolers Are Thinking About Gun Violence

May 11, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to talk about the shooting on Tuesday in Colorado, where a student was killed. As more of the facts became known, attention focused on the actions of three students who tried to disarm one of the gunmen. One of those students who stepped in, Brendan Bialy, spoke at a press conference Wednesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BRENDAN BIALY: I remember just feeling absolute and complete fear when he walked in. But once movement started, you'd see their fight or flight. And I'm just more than happy to know that what I thought I'd be able to do in a situation like that was the reality of what I did.

MARTIN: And this comes after another shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where two students were killed and four injured. There too, a student reportedly tackled the gunman and disrupted the attack but died in the process. So that made us ask ourselves if something has changed in the way students think about these terrible events. How do they see themselves in an era where gun violence in schools and elsewhere is so much a part of the public consciousness?

We decided to take this question to the Barbershop because that's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And joining us this week are Mari Ortega. She's a student at Matignon High School. She's with us from Cambridge, Mass. Hi, Mari.

MARI ORTEGA: Hi. How are you?

MARTIN: Well, good. Welcome. Thanks for joining us. Kat Zhang is with us. She's a senior at The Harker School, where she's co-editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. And she's with us from Cupertino, Calif. Hi, Kat.

KAT ZHANG: Hello.

MARTIN: And Onaje Woodbine is also with us. He is a teacher with a really interesting backstory. He grew up in a neighborhood where violence was common, he went to schools where it wasn't, and he later became a high school teacher himself. And he's with us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Onaje, welcome to you. Thanks so much for joining us as well.

ONAJE WOODBINE: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Mari and Kat, I'm going to start with you because you're both current students. And I'm going to start by asking Mari - I'll go to you first - is gun violence something that you talk about? And, if so, when did you start having to talk about this and think about this?

ORTEGA: I don't think it really started to kind of, like, absorb me until, like, more recently, after the Parkland shooting. Like, I've always had this idea that school shootings kind of just, like, weren't really a thing that just happened to, like, normal people, I guess.

MARTIN: In fact, Mari, you tweeted a couple of weeks ago - that's one reason we found you, is that you tweeted, every time a door slams at school, I look for the fastest escape route. A textbook drops, and I wonder if breaking both of my legs jumping from a third-floor window is worth it to get away. Every time I'm alone in the hallway, I wonder who would cave and let me into their room. I mean, that's - you know, golly. I mean, that's a heck of a way to think about going to school. Do you think a lot of your friends feel that way, too?

ORTEGA: I know a lot of my friends feel that way. It's not really a conversation you want to have with your friends. It's not really something you want to speak about casually. But me and my friends definitely have this understanding that, like, whenever something slams or drops, like, we all freeze in a way. And it's really concerning because after, we'll laugh about it and be, like, wow, it's really sad that our minds immediately go to something's going on, you know?

MARTIN: And, Kat, one of the reasons we reached out to you is that you're a student, but you're also covering these issues and talking to other students about these kinds of issues. And your newspaper has been reporting on gun violence, including interviewing March for Our Lives founders Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg last year. So I was curious, though - is this something that you approach as a journalist as something kind of apart from you? Or do you feel like it's something that is an issue for you and your fellow students as well?

ZHANG: Yeah. I feel like, as a journalist, there's sort of this obligation to be objective, to report the news in the most objective way possible. But recently, I feel like the way that we cover school shootings and the way that we treat them, even as journalists - like, we treat them differently than we would, like, our normal, everyday school stories in that we as journalists are also highly emotionally involved.

And when we talked to Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, we made sure to like ask them about the details of their personal lives to really showcase their stories and to show the world that these are just normal kids. I remember Emma's - that she loves, like, embroidery and watching Netflix. David has, like, a little dog that he walks every day named Tater. Like, the world just needs to know that these are normal kids, and they're normal kids just like us.

And we sort of pour out our frustration into the pages that we make about this incident into the articles that we write and the interviews that we conduct. So, as journalists, it makes us feel it even more to - because you can't hide from the reality of how horrifying this is when a kid who's just like you who's, like, 17 or 16 and trying to figure out their life just like you has had to mature so quickly and is just looking you in the eye and saying, like, help us - like, what is wrong with the world around us? You can't hide from that.

MARTIN: So, Onaje, one of the reasons we wanted to call you is that, you know, you have this interesting backstory. You - as we mentioned, like, you grew up in a neighborhood where violence was something that you were accustomed to, and I'll just say it for people so that they can - you know, people - we can just get this out of the way. I know for a lot of people, it's very painful that they lived with violence quietly, right?

WOODBINE: Sure.

MARTIN: And it felt like nobody cared.

WOODBINE: That's right.

MARTIN: And then, when it started to affect other communities, then it became kind of a national concern. So let me just sort of say that. But then, you know, so you've kind of lived in both worlds, and I was just wondering whether, you know, as a teacher, like, when, you know, you hear that students from all backgrounds now are sort of talking about this, I'm just wondering how you react to it.

WOODBINE: Yeah, it's...

MARTIN: What does it make you feel? What does it bring up for you?

WOODBINE: It's very disheartening to hear the other guests speak and to realize that they're sort of chronically stressed or traumatized. I remember, you know, growing up, as you say, in an inner-city school. That was sort of the norm. We sort of took gun violence and shooting deaths for granted as a part of everyday life - and I think, you know, my work in some inner-city schools now as well. And students in those spaces tend to be numb to this reality, I think. You know, when a national shooting happens, they're sort of dealing with this on a daily basis. And so it doesn't - they can't incorporate it in the same way, and it doesn't necessarily register.

But then I also taught at, you know, some really well-to-do private schools, and I think students there are numb as well. Many of them are afraid. But also, there's this sense of sort of it will never happen here because there's a sort of exceptionalism that comes with, you know, attending these really wealthy private boarding schools. So it's a really interesting contrast and dynamic.

MARTIN: So, Mari, I want to ask you, now that - and Mari and Kat, I want to ask both of you this. Now that these stories are emerging that these students, you know, in these different places, like, tackled the shooter, or they tried to intervene - I mean, we've seen this before, but not in such a direct way. Like, for example, I remember at the Virginia Tech shooting, a number of students, like, barricaded the doors. They tried to help other students escape. But now, you know, we're hearing about these students, like, directly engaging with these people. And I wonder how that makes you feel. Mari, do you want to start?

ORTEGA: Yeah. That shouldn't be our job. You know, there's really no, like, easy way to say that. Like, our jobs should be going to school, getting an education, finishing, graduating, you know? It shouldn't be part of our everyday lives that we even have to consider, you know, OK. Like, I'm sitting in math class, and something starts happening. Like, who would I die for? Would I - like, would there be a surge of adrenaline, and would I tackle the shooter, like, in order to save my classmates? That shouldn't be a thought any child has, you know?

And the fact that it's kind of just come to this point where we do have to consider that, and we do have to look around the room and see what's heaviest to block the door, you know? Like, I don't think we should be in a place where that's acceptable. And at this point, it kind of is. And now we've all just grown accustomed to lockdowns and, like, procedures of worst-case scenario, but worst-case scenarios happening every day. Like, I go through my whole life, like, wondering if today's the day, or, like, when it's going to happen to me, you know?

MARTIN: Kat, what about you?

ZHANG: Yeah. I completely agree with what Mari said. Like, it's just horrifying - like, especially when we have lockdown drills, which are now, like, a regular occurrence in pretty much every school, including my own. Like, whenever we're, like, huddled behind the desk, we know it's a drill. But we as students - like, we're just automatically already thinking about what could be used as a weapon. Like, my history teacher once had like a baseball bat hanging on her wall just because she's a big baseball fan. And then, like, during a lockdown drill, suddenly everyone's like, well, that could be used as a weapon. Like, no. That should be a part of the classroom and should be a decoration. It should be for students to enjoy. But instead, we're thinking in this different way.

And I think, like, parents around the country are, like, having the same conversation that the boy who jumped in front of the shooter in the Colorado shooting - that his parents had with him of, like, please don't be a hero. Like, we just want you to live. And that, too, is extremely saddening that that's happening.

MARTIN: Onaje, as a - I was wondering about this. And if you don't mind my bringing gender into it...

WOODBINE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I was wondering, you know, as a man...

WOODBINE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And as a young man, did you feel like you had some pressure to be a hero?

WOODBINE: Definitely. It's interesting because it wasn't just being in school and worried about violence in my inner-city community, but it was even getting to school. And that was sort of our everyday reality.

MARTIN: So we can't resolve all this today, but I did want to just kind of open the door to this conversation. So I just wanted to ask, then, you know, each of you just for a thought about what would you want people to know about this - being mindful of the fact that, like, for example, in Colorado, when there was a vigil, you know, to acknowledge, you know, what happened Tuesday, some of the students were angry because they felt like the event wasn't really addressing their concerns, right? They felt that the event had kind of moved into a political space, which some of them didn't like - and my guess is some of them probably did like - but, you know, but different opinions about it.

So I just wanted to sort of ask, like, what would you want each of us to be thinking about this? Mari, do you want to start?

ORTEGA: Yeah. I think it's really important to remember that, you know, as students and as children, you know, from the ages of, like, 5 to 18, like, we go through every day where this is just been incorporated somehow. And, like, me going to school shouldn't be a fight for survival, you know? Like, I shouldn't be worried about dying in English. And so I think what's important to remember is that we are children. We do have that sense of innocence. And every day, it's taken away from us because we're fighting for our lives, really.

MARTIN: And, Onaje, what about you?

WOODBINE: Yeah. For me, I think I'd like people to realize that the memory of those that have died - those - these young people that have given their lives and lost their lives in these school shootings - they still impact those who were close to them and those that are still living. And those memories often traumatize, continue to traumatize all of us. I mean, that's the point that I think I'd want people to remember - that, you know, when somebody loses their life, everyone around them continues to grieve for the rest of their lives.

MARTIN: Kat, what about you?

ZHANG: Yeah. I think that the people who lay down their lives, the people - the activists, like, from Parkland who are standing up - they're all still kids. And we shouldn't get used to them doing this because this isn't our job as 16-to-18-year-olds. We should all be, like, figuring out the normal things a 16-to-18-year-old should be figuring out, like what we want to do in college, where we want to go, like, what do we want to do with our lives instead of worrying about life-or-death situations every single day.

So while it's extremely amazing to see these shows of bravery from both activists and people who have engaged with a gunman in their own schools, that's not normal, and it shouldn't be normal. And while we should celebrate their bravery, we should also recognize, like, there should never be another kid who has to do that again.

MARTIN: That was Kat Zhang. She's a senior at The Harker school. Mari Ortega is a senior at Matignon High School. Mari's in Cambridge, Mass. Kat is in Cupertino, Calif. We were also joined by Onaje Woodbine. He's a former high school teacher. He's the author of "Black Gods Of The Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, And Street Basketball." He's now an assistant professor at American University here in Washington, D.C.

I thank you all so much for joining us.

WOODBINE: Thank you.

ZHANG: Thank you.

ORTEGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.