September 7, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Hello, MindSite News readers. Today we bring you the voices of high school seniors in Connecticut who survived the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School when they were six and are still trying to heal. In other stories, NYC mayor Eric Adams’ plan to bring teletherapy to public school students, rising childcare costs add to parental stress, and Toni Morrison and Shonda Rimes on what they learned working as a child and teen.

Plus: A list of books on intergenerational trauma and Fatherly magazine on TV shows to help kids overcome their first-day jitters as they go back to school.

Survivors of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary grapple with trauma as high school seniors

In online videos for Sandy Hill Promise, a nonprofit to save children from gun violence, we see two loving parents with their smiling, exuberant six-year-old. Everyone in the photo is doomed, but they don’t know it yet. The parents made the videos to try to save other families from a hell we cannot imagine. As a journalist I’m supposed to check my bias, but as a parent to a kindergartner, I’m unable to contain my horror at the recollections of young adults whose most enduring introduction to school was witnessing and surviving mass murder. 

“I was in first grade and we were going to make gingerbread cookies when an active shooter came into my classroom and shot down my classmates and my teachers in front of me and one of my friends told me and a couple of other people to run because the shooter’s gun jammed and we all ran out of the school and started running on the driveway and onto the main road and a family friend saw us and pulled over and asked what happened,” Sandy Hook survivor Emma Ehrens told the News-Times, part of Hearst Connecticut Media. “We told her what happened, and she picked us up and drove us to the police station. I’ve been trying to heal ever since.”

How grotesque is our society that the school shooting Ehrens survived was not the final one? I wonder if that’s a question she asks herself when she speaks the name of Jesse Lewis, her 6-year-old friend who was gunned down as he urged his classmates to run. 

Grace Fisher wrestles with survivor’s guilt. “Because they were lost so young in their lives it is just hard for me because I got to grow up and they did not…That is probably the most upsetting part for me,” she said. “Would I be friends with them if they were still here?” Fisher asked through tears. “I think a lot about how [they] could have been a big part of my life. All the fun they could have brought to me when they grew up.”

Ehrens, Fisher, and other Sandy Hook survivors, alongside their fellow teenage Newtown, Connecticut supporters have begun to raise their voices in hopes of sparking change. It’s an uphill battle. “I have done some lobbying with people that don’t want to hear it, and that is hard to accept,” said Geneva Whorf, co-chair of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance (JNAA), a club at Newtown High School, through which students use their personal stories to advocate for gun violence prevention. Still the students press on, being present and building community for other survivors of mass shootings. 

Michayl Wilford was too young for elementary school that dreadful Friday in December 2012, but her brother survived the gunshots. She’s now a board member of the JNAA, poised to keep survivors’ stories strong, even after her senior friends graduate. “I want to make the difference that needs to be made because obviously nothing is happening with gun violence policies,” Wilford said. “There are not enough restrictions. Obviously school shootings and gun violence keep on happening and it is not slowing down. If anything it is speeding up. That makes me feel disappointed and not very good about where we are as a country, which is why we need positive change.”

As NYC rushes to make teletherapy available to high school students, is it unintentionally leaving many behind?

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has declared worsening mental health among children and teens “the defining public health crisis of our time.” Worse, youth mental health continues to decline, according to Child Trends. Taking on the issue in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams has allocated $9 million to build out a teletherapy program for the city’s teens, with more funding expected to expand teletherapy services for NYC residents with serious mental illness and young people residing in shelters. Though it’s well-intentioned, recent NYC public school graduate Rainier Harris, now a student at Columbia University, is curious about how effective Adams’ plans for telehealth can be.

Harris’ concerns? It’s great that Adams is treating youth mental health needs as a priority, Harris says in an op-ed first published by Undark, but there is little evidence that online therapy is what young people want. For one, there’s the matter of “Zoom fatigue,” or burnout from online forms of communication. While teletherapy is intended to help, Zoom fatigue can actually exacerbate symptoms of depression. And for some students, being at home or school is the worst place to engage in a counseling session. According to Harris’ reporting, the lack of privacy there may be contributing factors to the teens’ declining health in the first place. Moreover, a report from the New York City Council found that up to 13% of the city’s public school students lacked adequate internet access at home, making teletherapy wholly inaccessible to many students, even if they wanted it. 

So, what’s Harris’ vision? Be clear about your plans, Mayor Adams. Tell the people who can receive services and how those who need it can get it.

“My first job”: Toni Morrison and Shonda Rimes recount their child and teen labor

From The Toni Morrison Project, via Twitter

If there’s one thing young folks have in spades, it’s audacity. Young Shonda Rhimes and Toni Morrison were no different, as evidenced in the tales of their first experiences at work. Even silently reading Morrison’s recollection of her first job in The New Yorker, I can hear the pride in her voice. Though she didn’t have to work for her family to survive, she shared half of her earnings from cleaning White folks’ houses with her parents for collective rather than self interest. 

“The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound,” Morrison wrote Morrison, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature. “I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest. I had a status that doing routine chores in my house did not provide—and it earned me a slow smile, an approving nod from an adult. Confirmations that I was adultlike, not childlike.” 

Her work life began just after the advent of child labor laws meant to protect children’s’ health, well-being, and chances at pursuing education. Ironically, those rights are in jeopardy today, being rolled back incrementally, much like Morrison’s at her first job. She’d begun doing work assumed to be suited for a young girl – basic tidying and cleaning. That soon grew to more intense labor, like carrying bookcases up a flight of stairs or pushing a piano across a room until her arms and legs yelped in pain. She wanted to quit or at least get a little sympathy for her grief. Instead, at her house, she got a lesson on remembering her value as she earned the money she was due. 

“Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people,” Morrison’s father told her. “Go to work. Get your money. And come on home,” he said. It’s not a job that defines you, she learned, and most importantly, who you are in real life matters most of all.

In other news…

Getting ready for school by watching the tube: Fatherly has a list of TV episodes that may help to bolster excitement or ease anxiety for your student’s start to the school year. Suggestions range for all ages, from preschool to 12th grade, and offer examples of students overcoming first-day jitters, making new friends, working through bullying, and in the case of pop culture fave Buffy, slaying vampires instead of cheerleading. 

Not quite light reading, but relatable nonetheless: Everything, Everywhere, All At Once explored intergenerational trauma on film, and now Electric Lit offers up a selection of books that also examine the subject, via fiction and nonfiction authors. 

Rising childcare costs add to parental stress: The Washington Post reports that, as pandemic funds set aside by Congress to support child care centers across the US dry up, an estimated 70,000 childcare programs are in danger of closing, threatening care for 3.2 million children. That translates to a strain on parents and the economy, researchers at the Century Foundation found. “It isn’t just individual children or parents that will be impacted, it’s the economy as a whole,” said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “When more than 3 million children lose care, that means all of those parents are going to have to figure out something else or reduce their work hours or leave their jobs altogether.” 

Considering one solution to the nation’s mental health crisis would be working to improve the conditions of people’s lives, it’s tough to see how exacerbating families’ abilities to earn a living for lack of child care can help alleviate the problem. “The pandemic laid bare and exacerbated what was already a tenuous situation in child care,” said Melissa Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center. “The American Rescue Plan was a lifeline. And when this money dries up, it will be a slow roll toward making the country’s child-care deserts even drier.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...