I have toured the country for the past 10 years to talk to our young people. I’ve learned that the biggest threat to our humanity is not guns, mental illness or our government. It is that everyone is talking and no one is listening.
We could spare ourselves a lot of tragedies if every student and adult would actually listen — and I mean the Old English definition of the word. The root of the word actually comes from an Old English word “hylsnan,” which means “pay attention to.”
Shortly after the Columbine, Colo., school shooting in 1999, the first major shooting in a string of horrific massacres of our children, authorities wanted to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong.
Sadly, the shootings kept coming. So, like an episode from “Mind Hunters,” researchers interviewed 10 school shooters in prisons across the country and studied 37 tragedies to understand why. When the results were published jointly by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education, they highlighted a seemingly simple solution: listen to the young people.
The core of the study’s prevention strategy is paying attention to behavior — or “listening.”
Here’s an excerpt from the report: “Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack. In most cases, those who knew were other kids — friends, schoolmates, siblings, and others. However, this information rarely made its way to an adult.”
The majority of the attackers had difficulty dealing with loss or personal failures, or felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others. Many also attempted suicide.
I hear these struggles from young people everywhere I go.
Indeed, after Friday’s shooting in Santa Fe, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the suspected shooter, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, had journals documenting his thoughts on both his computer and his cellphone. He wrote that he wanted to commit the shooting, and that he wanted to commit suicide afterward, Abbott said. He had posted to Facebook a photo of a T-shirt with the words “Born to kill” written on it, Abbott added.
I launched my project as a response to these tragedies, to give youths a voice. I gave five diverse teens a video camera, and seven months later they produced more than 80 hours of raw footage focused on how the young filmmakers and their peers felt. I shaped the footage into four educational films that became the catalyst for talks I delivered all over the United States, Canada and Europe.
After a decade working in more than 1,000 schools, I understand why they say no one listens to them. It’s their top concern.
It made me think back to an episode in my own life I’m not proud of. My brother’s ability to listen changed my life.
My freshman year in high school, my brother walked into our shared room one evening and realized that something was off. He asked me what was wrong. I replied “nothing” with an unsettled face and eyes fixated on a duffel bag by my feet.
Without words, he pulled the zipper back, exposing a shotgun and a box of shells. “What is really going on?” he asked calmly.
I explained that I had been on the phone with a student who threatened to “jump me” the next day at my school with 10 of his friends. He had heard I liked his girlfriend. I told my brother I felt petrified and helpless and I would make the bully feel the same.
My brother calmed me down and told my parents. We remained home from school the next day while local authorities traced the intimidating call back to the teen’s house and personally delivered a warning for him not to go near me.
I feared that friends and extended family would think I was unhinged for planning to bring a gun to school, so I kept the story a secret for eight years.
Two traumatic events made me realize I needed to tell my gun story. The first tragedy was that my brother died in a tractor accident on our family farm, and soon after, the Columbine High School shooting happened.
I did not know the Columbine shooters or ever attend a school in Colorado. I went to high school more than 1,000 miles away in Northern California and did not plot to attack my school. I did, however, plan to bring a gun on campus — and as hard as this is to admit — I planned to threaten or shoot the person who had bullied me.
I felt angry, powerless and misunderstood — until my brother listened to me.
Less than a year after Columbine, I told my story to the five students to whom I’d assigned the video cameras. And I spent the next 10 years learning what listening genuinely means.
Psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s research shows that what we communicate is reliant more on our body language than what we say. Specifically, 55 percent is our actions, 38 percent from our sounds and only 7 percent of the value comes from our words.
If we’re not truly listening, we miss a youth struggling alone, a co-worker contemplating suicide and maybe even a gun hidden in a bag.
Several months before the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, where a gunman opened fire, killing 17 students and staff members, I spent 12 hours there teaching people to be better listeners.
More than 1,000 students sat in the Stoneman Douglas gym to watch my feature film “Listen” on a massive screen sewed together by parents. It was the first part of a districtwide initiative called #BCPSListens. Body image, bullying, school shootings, depression and suicide are a handful of issues the film features.
After the screening, I facilitated a 50-minute discussion with one-third of the student body. You could hear a pencil drop as several students were brave enough to reveal their hidden truths to the group:
“All of my life I’ve never had a person that I consider a friend.”
“I was bullied for six years straight and attempted suicide in fourth grade … I just wish more people could hear my story and other people’s stories.”
“All my life I’ve been told to listen. I listen to others and try to make them feel the best that I can, but I have no one that will listen to me.”
These experiences are shared by countless other teens I’ve met over the years. The only difference is that the Stoneman Douglas students had more than 1,000 teachers and classmates listening.
A lot of things from that day have stuck with me. One of them is from a student who quoted a teacher of hers:
“You spend a couple minutes with people and you should make those couple minutes worth it … you should say nice things to them, you should ask if they are okay. You never know if it’s the last time you will see them.”
We should take a moment to listen better. We’re all in this together.