“Complacency,” Mary Cox says, “is a sickness of the human spirit.” So instead, in the wake of a local tragedy, she has chosen action.
On January 23, 2018, a 15-year-old student shot and killed classmates Bailey Holt and Preston Cope at Marshall County High School near Benton, Kentucky—a town of fewer than 5,000 people. One of those people is Mary, a senior who has helped lead local youth in advocating for a different approach to stopping gun violence. Teaching Tolerance Senior Writer Cory Collins recently spoke with Mary about the challenges facing students who have experienced trauma and who have dealt with opposition to their activism.
One question people don't ask enough right now when kids and young people are leading the way is: How are you doing? Processing all of this so soon after what happened at your school—how is that going for you?
I think it’s a slow process, but there are good and bad days, as I think is with most traumatic things that happen to anybody. I have some days where certain things are hard to see or hear. I do therapy once a week now, as most of my classmates do. … The hardest thing is having people around you who have particularly bad days, especially those who saw things and heard things much more graphic than others did, watching their experiences. I have a very good friend who was about three feet from the shooter.
He saw somebody trip the other day and had a panic attack, so things like that are hard to adjust to, hard to make a new normal, I think.
In the wake of that, how did the March for Our Lives rally go there, locally?
We think it went better than we expected. It’s a pretty conservative town; it really is. We definitely had a lot of opposition to it. We did have a pretty decent turnout, I’d say. About 100 … maybe 150 people came, so for a community like this, that’s pretty amazing.
It’s nice to see people who otherwise wouldn't have had viewpoints like this kind of come together for a collective cause. It’s better than we expected, but there are still a lot of people who aren’t going to change their minds, so that’s the part we’re dealing with now in the aftermath.
What challenges do you think you face being in a more rural community that others might not understand?
There are people who are aggressive; there are people who are violent. We’ve had videos taken of some of us who spoke at March for Our Lives where people are cursing them out. People younger than I am, 15-year-olds at my school being cursed out on video tape by some of these [people]. We’ve all gotten messages from adults or members of our community saying aggressive words or threatening words to us.
I think the challenge is, this is a place that doesn’t want to change. It doesn’t want any kind of new legislation. It wants tradition. It wants normalcy. That’s the challenge we face here … in all issues, but in particular in a county where people love guns and are very right wing, it's hard to persuade them otherwise.
What do you hope to see happen as a result of the activism that you and your fellow students are doing?
We hope to create a big enough stir that we can cause amendments to legislation. I think one of the biggest issues now is that people think we want to eradicate the right to own firearms, but really more what we’re looking at, specifically, is making sure that weapons like the AR-15 are A) not able to be purchased—at all would be ideal—but if we have to compromise on that, it’s that we have stricter background checks. That people who are not healthy or exhibit a violent past won’t be able to purchase that kind of weaponry.
We want to focus on proper gun storage as well, because a lot of people have been throwing in our faces that our school shooting didn’t happen with a high-caliber weapon. It happened with a pistol, but the problem with that was it wasn’t being stored properly, which is how he had access to it.
And I think one of the emphases that some of the people at our march put on it was that we want people to know that it’s seldom about mental illness. There are times where people who are violent and exhibit violent behaviors are mentally ill, but we give people, and specifically white men, these outs by screaming that they’re mentally ill before we even hear what their name is. For all of us who marched at the rally and who spoke at the rally, most of us are mentally ill, have dealt with depression or anxiety disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorders. To hear them kind of stigmatize a whole group of people who generally aren’t the ones carrying these things out, it’s hard. It’s hard to watch people stigmatize that and try to blame that rather than guns.
What we’re trying to do is educate people about mental health, educate people about safe gun laws, and hope to find that compromise where people will not fully agree with it, maybe, but that they’ll understand that these regulations will make all of us safer, and won’t really take any of their fundamental rights away.
What else have you all been up to beyond the march to help raise awareness on issues like this?
We’ve been trying to raise a lot of awareness on social media with people and kind of get the word out to people …
We’re also having several meetings a week about further marches and rallies and things that we can do to say that we’re not going to be silent about this. I know that some of the kids at Parkland are planning things at the Town Hall and at the capitol buildings for each state, and so we’re trying to plan more things there and make sure that this isn’t swept under the rug. We’re definitely doing a lot of networking at the moment to try to get rallies organized.
What we’re really hoping is that we can get more people involved who can relate to this issue, and who want to make a difference and kind of band together as a collective force that legislators are afraid of.
Do you have any advice for kids and young adults like you who might be wanting to get involved, but maybe this groundswell hasn’t happened yet in their community?
I would say that the most uplifting thing that has helped me kind of stay on track is knowing in my heart that I’m on the right side of history. I think the important thing to remember is that it is hard to take a stand. It’s hard if you don’t feel like you have the proper voice. So many of these people that want to come forward, they’re not professional speakers, and they don’t have to be. It humanizes you when people know that you are just a regular kid who doesn’t want to get shot.
It helps other people want to stand up and say something. Because if they see … somebody who isn’t a great speaker or somebody who isn’t super involved politically say something about this, it normalizes the people. It helps us to give a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t stand up. It makes people a little bit more brave, I think. I would say if you can have just that one person who’s willing to come up, it’s going to inspire so many more people like them to rise up and then you’ll have a whole force of people.
Of course, my community of young people right now, we’re willing to help anybody get off the ground who wants to do something like this. There are ways to contact us where we are so willing to give people information, to lend people our voices, to lend people our statistics, our research, and to help them get something going if that’s what they’d like to do.
As a former theater kid myself, I can’t help but notice that so many of the youth activists that I’ve seen, both where you are and in Parkland, have backgrounds in art or theater or poetry, spoken word. How do you think that helps?
Oh, I think it definitely helps in so many ways. I captained speech and debate at my school. I am going to be a theater major in the fall, and I am a published poet. I’ve done things like this my whole life. I think that the thing that really helps artists to be able to do this is: To be a real artist, you have to have compassion. You have to be somebody that really cares about the people around you. I think that we see so many artists coming up because I think artists, as a people, just tend to be so much more empathetic and compassionate than a person who doesn’t do art. …
Usually with my experience with theater kids, they’re not the most liked of people. They go through that bullying and those hardships and that mental illness. There’s a quote by Neil Hilborn where he says that he thinks the genes to be an artist and the genes to be mentally ill are not only related, but the same. I think so many people who are artists struggle with that. Because we know some struggles… we kind of are able to swoop in as underdogs because we have known what it’s like to be underdogs before.
Then, of course, just being in theater or being in public speaking or being writers just gives you the fundamental skills to be able to reach an audience and speak to an audience and know how to relate to other human beings. …
People who oppose individuals like this and who directly attack us instead of our ideas, they’re just the same bullies we dealt with in middle school, and we already dealt with them. I think us, as artists, it’s so nice to know that we can make a difference for people, that we can help people and help people heal and help people grow through art and through our love of art and through the skills we’ve gained from art.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.