How Songwriting Helped Two Parkland Students Find — And Share — 'Hope For The Future'

Aug 13, 2018

You, you threw my city away

You tore down the walls and opened up all the gates

In the days following the massacre at her new high school, recent transfer Sawyer Garrity wrote these lyrics. It seems obvious who she's speaking to, who she's holding accountable for the deaths of 17 people and the destruction of an entire community's sense of safety and security and peace.

But she and the song's composer, her friend Andrea Peña, say there's not one specific person to blame for the events of Feb. 14 — six months ago.

"It's the person who made all of these bad things happen. It's the government. It's literally just anyone who's trying to silence our voices," said Garrity, 17, who this week starts her senior year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Peña, 16, a junior, adds: "I also think the 'you' could stand for the people — maybe in office, maybe not — who are just bystanders, who are just sitting and letting this happen."


You, you ruined this town

You burned all of the bridges, and you slowly let us drown

Garrity and Peña found healing in writing their song, "Shine." It was the only way they knew how to cope in the immediate aftermath of the trauma. And the song has grown in meaning for them each time they've performed it, when they produced a music video for it, and when they began selling it on iTunes to raise money for their foundation, called "Shine M.S.D."

This summer, the song was the namesake and the inspiration for "Camp Shine," a free arts therapy camp that allowed Stoneman Douglas students to process their shared trauma through music, drama and visual arts.

"Writing the song got us to that place where we had hope for the future," Garrity said, reflecting on her journey over the last six months. "We needed to make something beautiful out of this."

You're not gonna knock us down

We'll get back up again

You may have hurt us, but I promise we'll be stronger, and

We're not gonna let you win

We're putting up a fight

You may have brought the dark, but together we will shine the light

And, whoa, oh, oh, we will be something special

Whoa, oh, oh, we're gonna shine, shine

The two friends met at the beginning of last school year, after Garrity transferred to Stoneman Douglas from a charter school in Coral Springs. They grew close after Feb. 14.

"I remember telling her … I can't just sit here and watch the news all day," Peña said. "I really need to channel my energy into something."

They started writing the song — Peña composing the music and accompanying on piano, and Garrity penning the lyrics and singing lead — the Saturday after the shooting.

On that Monday, they sent a recording to their drama teacher — Melody Herzfeld, who was later honored at the Tonys. She asked them if they wanted to perform it at the town hall event being hosted by CNN. It was held at the BB&T Center in Sunrise one week after the shooting.

"I was freaking out and calling Andrea like, 'What do we do? It's not finished!'" Garrity said.

"We knew our community was going to be there — and then some," Peña said, "We wanted to sing this song in hopes of giving everyone a breath of fresh air and relief and maybe hope."

We, we're gonna stand tall

Gonna raise up our voices so we never, ever fall

We're done with all your little games

We're tired of hearing that we're too young to ever make a change

The CNN town hall was intense, emotional, almost unbearable. Parents whose kids had been slaughtered in their school hallways just a week before screamed at politicians for answers, for admissions. Students who survived and had already taken on the roles of gun control activists in an unprecedented way asked for promises that their lives, from now on, would mean more than guns or money or politics.

They demanded the kind of courageous and radical change they felt adults had failed to achieve for generations of children, although it had been nearly two decades since the high school shooting that lives in our nation's collective memory as the beginning of it all.

"Everyone was very upset, and they were all demanding answers," Garrity said. "We just wanted to give people some hope that things would get better."

They closed the event with "Shine" — stunning audiences that teens could have created something so beautiful, so hopeful, in just days, as their community wept and reeled in grief.

"It was like a dark cloud, like a storm, and I just didn't know when it was going to pass. I thought it was just going to hover over us forever," Peña said. "That's why I felt like our song couldn't be about sorrow."

'Cause you're not gonna knock us down

We'll get back up again

You may have hurt us but I promise we'll be stronger, and

We're not gonna let you win

We're putting up a fight

You may have brought the dark, but together we will shine the light

And, whoa, oh, oh, we're gonna shine, shine

The two students were overwhelmed by the positive response to their song. Paul McCartney, Britney Spears and other celebrities expressed support for "Shine" on Twitter. But Garrity and Peña said they were most moved that the song held meaning for their community.

Peña's elementary school, Heron Heights in Parkland, invited her to participate as a student choir performed the song in a benefit concert.

"Passing that song down generations was so inspiring to me," she said.

They sang it at March For Our Lives, the massive event organized by their peers in Washington, D.C., on March 24.

Their favorite performance was in D.C., but not on stage in front of the nation. It was at a private dinner before the march with families of the victims. Garrity said she made eye contact with the mom of a 14-year-old girl who was killed, and they held each other's gaze throughout the song.

"It was so emotional and so personal," Garrity said.

"Being able to help our community and help others who needed the song just as much as we did at the time — that's all we ever wanted," Peña said.

We can hug a little tighter, we can love a little more

Laugh a little harder, we can stand up and roar

If we all come together, we will be alright

Stand up for one another, and we'll never give up the fight

A 2007 alumna of Stoneman Douglas reached out to Garrity and Peña. Brittani Kagan said the California production company she works for, Portal A, could help them make a music video for the song.

The students helped conceptualize the scenes for the poignant video, which was shot almost entirely on campus at their school.

Garrity and Peña said they wanted the video to be dedicated to the victims, to make sure they're never forgotten. It begins with scenes of family members and friends holding up the yearbook photos of the people who died in the shooting.

Then it shows a music room where chairs have been overturned and instruments are scattered on the floor.

"We wanted to show the school how it was when we left it," Garrity said.

Garrity, Peña and other students walk in and start putting the room back to how it should be.

"It was kind of a symbolism for us trying to pick up everything that's been broken," Garrity said.

Another scene shows a father driving up to the school with his daughter. They say goodbye, and he watches her go in.

"How hard it must have been to let his daughter go back into reality after facing something so horrible," Peña said.

Garrity said the scene shows the "overwhelming anxiety" students and their parents were feeling about going back to school.

"That feeling is never going to go away," Garrity said. "Because, once you go through something like that, you're always just wondering: 'What if it happens again?'"

At the climax of the song, there are scenes of students marching on campus at Stoneman Douglas juxtaposed with scenes of them marching on the streets of D.C. during March For Our Lives.

"It was kind of like, we marched all the way from the school to D.C.," Garrity said. "Now we're here, and we're ready to use our voices."

We refuse to be ignored by those who will not listen

There are so many things you can do to get involved

Reach out to your congressman: Mail, call and tweet

The smallest of words can make the biggest difference

Be the voice for those who don't have one

Together, we have the power to change the world around us

After they made the music video, Garrity and Peña were deciding what to do next. They admired their classmates for starting the Never Again movement and planning March For Our Lives — but activism wasn't what had helped them cope.

"With politics, there are sides. But with art and music, you can speak to anyone, no matter what their opinions are," Garrity said. "Music is so healing."

They wanted other kids to have the chance to heal by making art. So they decided to use the money they raised with their foundation to fund a free summer camp.

About 80 kids attended Camp Shine this summer. Garrity and Peña went to the first two-week session, which was held at Stoneman Douglas. The second and third sessions were next door at Westglades Middle School.

Students received group therapy disguised as music, drama and art activities.

Garrity and Peña's parents are officers in the foundation and helped to get the camp off the ground. Garrity's father, Joe, said he's been in touch with NewArts, a similar foundation in Connecticut that sprang up after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

That foundation is still operating there, now nearly six years after the 2012 shooting that left 26 people dead, most of them small children. Joe Garrity sees the work of the Parkland foundation in the long term.

"It could be that this foundation never leaves this community," he said. "We're going to stay as long as we're needed."

"Shine" was the first song Peña had ever written. She said she's grateful the song has helped others.

"I didn't realize how powerful using your energy toward artistic expression could be, and how healing it truly is."

You're not gonna knock us down

We'll get back up again

You may have hurt us, but I promise we'll be stronger, and

We're not gonna let you win

We're putting up a fight

You may have brought the dark, but together we will shine the light

And, whoa, oh, oh, we will be something special

Whoa, oh, oh

We will shine

A group of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students participates in a songwriting workshop during Camp Shine at Westglades Middle School this summer.
Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN