By Briana Vannozzi
The speakers included Holocaust and 9/11 survivors, refugees of genocide and war, families of mass shooting victims. Those who have seen the worst, but are explaining how to move on.
“There’s no easy way to tell the story of your 7-year-old child being shot to death in his classroom. You just can’t,” said Mark Barden, father of a Newtown shooting victim.
Barden’s son Daniel was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012. Since then, he started an organization to train students and teachers how to spot signs and prevent future tragedies.
“Four and a half years later and I still can’t get my head around this. I still can’t hear myself say that,” he said.
“As heavy as it is to listen to so many of these stories the kids really love it and they grow from it and they learn and understand there’s a bigger world out there,” said teacher and program co-chair Judy Gothelf.
Montville’s Living Lessons is held every other year since 2005, bringing voices from all walks of life to recount their heroic, diverse and powerful stories for the students at Robert Lazar Middle School.
“I was one of these young people whom their dreams were eventually vanished and demolished in the war. I came here via music scholarship and I don’t feel like I’m here safe so I need to forget about all the people behind, no. My heart breaks for my country and I believe I should be the voice,” said Syrian refugee Mariela Shaker.
Shaker escaped bombs and mortars in her Syrian neighborhood. Her family is still living in Aleppo with limited means for communication, their lives in danger every day.
“We at least have electricity and water. People they are dreaming to have such basic things, so I would like to invite you and encourage you all to not take anything for granted,” she said.
Today she’s using her music to spread messages of peace and break down barriers.
“It may be sad to hear the stories, but I think you can really take away from it. That you appreciate how much you have from hearing what hardships they went through,” said seventh-grader Nhean Baynes.
“We want children to understand that they can work hard to overcome their own obstacles,” Gothelf said.
With bullying and social media pressure at a peak during middle school years, organizers say this is the time to intervene.
“I’m going to make sure if anyone turns me down I’mjust going to prove them wrong. And I’m also going to make sure I respect everyone. I don’t need to like them, I just need to respect them,” said seventh-grader Aayu Sharma.
“It’s pretty amazing to see all these people’s experiences, because there’s not a lot of people left from 9/11 or the Holocaust. Our experiences are going to be going away soon after they die so it’s pretty cool to be a part of it,” sixth-grader Billy Templeton said.
When the program is over students aren’t just left with stories of adversity, but constructive ways to overcome it when it hits them.