MONTVILLE – Fresh out of college and on a cross-country bike ride with a friend, Stephen Barton found himself on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. The two joined an acquaintance at a local movie theater to see the summer’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises.”
About 15 minutes into the midnight performance, Barton noticed that one of the theater’s emergency exits opened and a figure walked through the door. Immediately thereafter, he heard a hissing sound from a canister that had been thrown into the theater, followed by several bright flashes and the sound of fireworks.
“All of a sudden, I felt this immense pressure on my chest and neck,” Barton told a roomful of middle school students Thursday. “It was so, so powerful. It took my breath away and I fell in front of my seat. At that moment I suddenly knew I had been shot with a gun.”
The middle school students, some wearing face masks, looked straight ahead or down as Barton spoke during the biannual Living Lessons: Voices, Visions, and Values event at the Robert R. Lazar Middle School in Montville.
The story continues under the gallery.
Barton told them he was lucky to survive the Aurora shooting, which killed 12 and injured dozens more.
The event was attended by approximately 50 speakers from around the world who spoke to classes of sixth through eighth graders about various difficulties they had experienced and overcome. Experiences ranged from terrorist bombings and other mass casualty events to accidents and drug abuse. Some speakers were there to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ rights, internet safety and other concerns.
Living Lessons was founded in 2005 by Lazar English teacher Judy Gothelf, who continues to lead the program with co-chair Danielle Barkey. Gothelf and co-founder Joseph Keizer, who is now the principal of Franklin Avenue Middle School in Franklin Lakes, wanted students to learn outside of their traditional schoolwork while being inspired to overcome any difficulties they faced.
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“We all have problems, we all have problems,” Gothelf said. “These people had pretty big problems and they were able to work through them, so[the speakers]kind of give them the courage to say, ‘I can do this too.'”
Perseverance was the focus of the presentation by Richard Williams, a victim of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.
William’s injuries from the attack included a fractured skull, a crushed hand, and an ear that was ripped off and had to be reattached. After his recovery, he helped plan the Oklahoma City National Memorial and has been a guest of Living Lessons every year since its inception.
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“There are numerous people that I know personally who have never been spiritually healed because they can’t deal with what’s going on in their lives,” Williams said. “It was never an option for me. I had to get out, back to work. I had to do something positive and I had to make a difference.”
Some of the students said they connected with the speakers.
Jewish sixth-grader Jonah Seewald said he was intrigued by the Holocaust survivor’s story. Classmate Michael Taormina, whose uncle was killed on September 11, listened intently as a survivor spoke of fleeing the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks.
Sophia Billings, a seventh grader, noted how each of the speakers talked about the long-term psychological effects of their particular situation. Still, she said, one of the key lessons she learned from the day was to “always be optimistic. Even in dark times there is a light.”
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Sixth grader Circe Vena drew a similarly positive conclusion from the speakers.
“Always look for the good in things,” she said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to has all had tough experiences, but they’re all proud. They’re not upset about what issues they’re having or what they’ve been through.”
Barton told the students that he had returned to the cinema’s parking lot a year after filming. From there, he and his friend, who was unharmed in the shooting, continued their bike ride, ending in California as planned.
The journey has taught Barton that life can change in unexpected ways, for better or for worse. He challenged students to remember that despite what they hear in the world, most people have good hearts.
“I could just focus on the one person – literally one person – who shot me, who decided to try and end my life, who could have really ruined my travel and encounter experience,” Barton said. “But there are literally hundreds of other people who have been that kind and kind. These people are by far the majority and I choose to focus on these people as I think about this journey.”