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Parkland Drama Teacher Who Helped Save 65 To Receive Tony Award For Education

Melody Herzfeld helped save 65 students when gunfire broke out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Melody Herzfeld helped save 65 students when gunfire broke out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

When gunfire broke out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February, teacher Melody Herzfeld rushed into action. As shooting went off, she closed the door to her drama classroom, shouted instructions to students on what to do and waited for the rampage to end.

"I was just literally at the door just saying, 'Come on, come on, come on, move, move, move,' " she says.

Over the next few hours, Herzfeld and 65 students sheltered in place before authorities determined it was safe for them to come out. In all, 17 students and teachers were killed in the massacre, one of the deadliest mass school shootings in recent history.

On Sunday, Herzfeld will be recognized for her work on theater's biggest night at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City in New York, where she'll receive this year's award for excellence in theater education. The honor, bestowed by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University, is given each year to a K-12 theater educator "who has demonstrated monumental impact on the lives of students." It comes with a $10,000 prize for the winner's theater program.

"It means more than anything," Herzfeld tells NPR's Rachel Martin on Morning Edition, about winning the award. "To our community, it's a sense of hope, it's a sense of happiness, and pride and joy to recognize that these people here that live here, and these students that go to this school, they're not just given everything, they work really hard for what they have, and to be recognized by such a special organization that doesn't just give stuff away, it's very meaningful to the whole community here."

In the days that followed the massacre, many of Herzfeld's students in the theater department were among those who helped spark a movement for tighter gun control in the United States. At a CNN town hall one week after the shooting, she guided her students in a performance of an original song they wrote titled "Shine."

In the song, the students declared, "We're tired of hearing that we're too young to ever make a change. You're not gonna knock us down. We'll get back up again."

"The CNN town hall was so contentious and so, it was so sad," Herzfeld says. But when her students started playing, she says, "The whole place just hushed. They just hushed. And everybody stood up and just looked at the girls up there, and at the end, I almost felt like I wasn't at this horrible event, I was at something that had hope."

Herzfeld, who's taught drama at Stoneman Douglas since 2003 and managed more than 50 productions, says that her job "is to let my students tell their own truth."

To that point, she says it came as no surprise that Parkland students have gone on to become such outspoken champions for gun control in the months since the shooting. In March, for example, students helped turn out an estimated 1.4 million to 2.2 million in "March for Our Lives" rallies at more than 750 locations nationwide.

"Obviously, what happened, that's part of it, who those individuals are, that's another part of it, the kind of resilience that those individuals have, absolutely."

But she also credits the lessons and values they've learned through theater.

"Kind of what we do, like as a performing arts student, is we insist in our classrooms to be honest," Herzfeld says. "We insist in our classrooms for our students to be truthful, loyal, honest and hardworking. So it makes absolute sense that this kind of perfect storm occurred."

Charlotte St. Martin and Heather Hitchens, presidents of The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, respectively, which both helped select this year's winner, had high praises for Herzfeld.

"Melody is a true inspiration to her students and to all of us in the theatre community and beyond," they said in a statement. "We are honored and humbled to present the Excellence in Theatre Education Award to Melody this year."

This year's Tony Awards will air on CBS on Sunday starting at 8 p.m. ET. The show will be hosted by Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban.

NPR's Steve Tripoli and Bo Hamby edited and produced this story for broadcast on Morning Edition.

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Jason Breslow