Parkland’s traumatized survivors
The massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left deep psychic wounds, said Patricia Mazzei in The New York Times. Here, survivors reflect on a year of grief, fear, and activism.
The name “Parkland” has become a shorthand for the tragedy that many hoped would mark the beginning of the end of school massacres.
But ask the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in more quiet moments about the awful year since last Feb. 14 and they tell you a different, more personal story. About innocence lost. Dreams undone. Grief delayed.
There is the boy who took five bullets to protect his classmates. A hero, the headlines proclaimed. He wanted to be a professional soccer player. “Now I don’t do anything,” he said.
There is the young woman who tells people about her best friend, because if she calls him her boyfriend, it does not seem sufficient to convey what they were. Soul mate: That is what he had told her she was to him. Told her before he died.
And there are the famous faces, the students everyone thinks they know, who on a recent morning stood at a nearby elementary school where a local charity quietly unveiled a mural, the last of 17 community service projects created to honor each of the victims. David Hogg, the one who went on CNN and dared adults to act like one, lay on a basketball court and painted in a hibiscus flower. Emma González, the one who “called BS” on politicians who were not serious about gun control, crouched barefoot before the wall, cut out a paper stencil and sang along to the Beatles’ song “Here Comes the Sun.”
To think of them, and of this upscale suburban high school, as mere symbols of tragedy ignores the complicated tapestry of sadness, fear, and defiance that is now forever part of it—and will be long after the last of these students graduates.
In all the activity of the past year, the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, the tour across the country registering voters, the investigations, the hearings, finishing senior year, getting into college—some said they had not had time to take the measure of what they had lost.
In a series of interviews, members of the Stoneman Douglas community—students, parents, teachers—reflected on the past 12 months. They did not want to relive that day. They did not want to argue about politics. They did not want to talk about the gunman’s pending trial for capital murder. This is what they wanted to do: mourn. These are their stories, in their own words.
Anthony Borges, 16
The five bullet wounds he took as he barricaded a classroom door to protect other students have healed, remarkably. But his recovery is far from over. And the prospect of being asked to testify in court looms in the future.
I haven’t gone back to school because I haven’t seen a change. The security failed. They need to put in metal detectors. I am being homeschooled. But I would like to go to another school someday.
People ask me what happened, what made me do what I did. I say I have always been strong.
The best moment for me was when I was able to walk by myself. The doctor told me, “You can walk a little now, without crutches.” So one day I was home and thought, “OK, I can do this.” I stood up and started limping. I walked into a room and my grandpa and my grandma and my mom and dad were there, and they burst out crying.
I was proud of myself. I had thought maybe I wouldn’t walk again. But I went to physical therapy every day. Now I just have to get my strength back. I can’t even lift weights yet.
My life is not normal. It will never be like before. I used to get out of school and go play soccer. All I wanted was to play soccer professionally. I played forward. Now I don’t do anything.
Today I gave a deposition in the criminal case. The defense attorneys asked me about the death penalty. I said I’m against it. I’ve always thought that, because that is a capital sin. I am not God to take someone’s life.
Anna Crean, 16
Now a sophomore, she was inside the freshman building where the shooting took place. Her lab partner, Alyssa Alhadeff, was killed. So were two of her creative-writing classmates. During the interview, loud squawks from birds flying overhead made her jumpy.
When I was in seventh grade, a teacher told us Parkland was a bubble. She said, “Someday, something bad’s going to happen here, and the bubble’s going to burst.” I remember I kept thinking about that afterward. Like, wow, she was right. I don’t feel safe anywhere anymore.
I have PTSD. The hardest part are sudden noises. Fourth of July, I was at camp, and I wasn’t expecting fireworks to go off, but they did. I had a panic attack. In school, a few freshmen have tried to pull pranks on us. They drop textbooks and film our reactions. We have monthly code-red drills. I’ve skipped probably three of them. It’s a constant reminder, every time, of the shooting.
Me and my three best friends, we’re the only ones that understand each other. One day they released a bunch of video footage from the shooting. We watched it together. Every time something gets put out there, people get very upset, but people need to see it.
The March for Our Lives in Washington was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life. We met Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. I got to make a bunch of new friends. I wish I had never had those opportunities, though.
We’re not all loud activists. A lot of us want to go back and finish our high school career the best we can. For college, I want to go to Ireland, where my parents are from, because I just don’t want to do four more years of schooling here. I really don’t like how divided this country is. In Ireland, there’s no guns.
Tori Gonzalez, 18
She’s a senior whose boyfriend, Joaquin Oliver, known as Guac, was killed in the shooting, months before he was expected to graduate. Only in December did she take what she considered the first step toward healing: planting a memorial garden at the school to commemorate the lives lost. She keeps the flowers Joaquin gave her last Valentine’s Day—his “last act of love,” she calls them—in a vase.
After graduation, I’m taking a gap year. I need a break. I am looking to volunteer abroad. I might go to Africa—I was supposed to go with Joaquin. I just want to get out of here for a while.
His best friend took me to prom. They totally ruined it: In the middle of the party, they played a slide show of the seniors who would have been there. You could see everyone fall to the ground and cry. That kind of scarred me. At the beginning of this school year, I didn’t talk to anyone. One time, this girl was just staring at me. Nobody knows what to say. It is so uncomfortable.
I’m wearing his sweatshirt. I wear it all the time. I’m going to sound really cheesy, but from the moment we met I knew I was going to spend my life with him. He was never my boyfriend. He said, “I hope you know you’re not my girlfriend. You’re my soul mate.” I know I’m just a kid and kids don’t know any better, but that was the purest form of love that there is. I’m so thankful that I had that, even if it was for such a short time.
Last year I was very sick at this time and Joaquin was like, “I really hope you feel better by Valentine’s Day.” That day was the first day I went back to school. I’m really glad that I saw him that morning. That morning was probably the best day that we had together.
Manuel Oliver, 51, and Patricia Oliver, 52
Like many other parents, Joaquin Oliver’s mother and father have become dedicated activists since their son’s death. One of them was elected to the local school board. While the families don’t all share the same political views, they stay in touch and occasionally meet, knowing they are bound by the pain of losing a child.
Manuel Oliver: We have a lot of sad moments that we keep for ourselves. People don’t know that I cry a lot. I sometimes find myself lost in life. And then I end up understanding that my son is not going to be back—as much as I cry, that’s not going to happen.
Everything that I see in the house relates to Joaquin. But I also miss my grown-up son, the one I will never have—the one that will go to college, get married, have kids. As a father, you have dreams. You see yourself as an old person, hanging out with your kids. That is not something that I can do anymore.
What happened to Joaquin happens every single day. This is not about Joaquin only. This is not about Parkland only. This is not about Florida only.
Patricia Oliver: There is no rule to follow. There is no book to read. Sometimes you have the best attitude, and other days you have to just get through it, and at the end of the day, you’re just destroyed. To deal with my emptiness, I watch videos. I look at pictures. It helps me, seeing Joaquin alive—smiling, joking, talking.
I feel Joaquin every single second. It was kind of raining a little while ago and I said, “Don’t worry, it’s not going to rain. Because Joaquin is going to take care of it.” And he answered, because look, it’s sunny again.
Today I met a girl who was in his classroom that day. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to her before, and at least now I know that they didn’t close the door on him. Because that was one of my concerns: that one of the screams they heard in the moment was him saying, “Help! Help!” But she told me no. That brings me peace of mind.
Sarah Lerner, 38
An English and journalism teacher and yearbook adviser at Stoneman Douglas, she compiled stories from shooting survivors into a book. Two of her students, Jaime Guttenberg and Meadow Pollack, were killed.
I went to the cemetery on Sunday. The first place I went to was Meadow. I just got out of the car and I lost it. I was ugly crying. I apologized for what happened to her. I told Jaime that my daughter, Hannah, dedicates her competitive dances to her.
On Rosh Hashana I asked my rabbi if it would be OK to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer. I didn’t want to be disrespectful to those whose immediate family member had died. He’s like, “Of course it’s appropriate, Sarah. They meant so much to you.” It was just so awful, to say it for people who shouldn’t have gone so young and shouldn’t have gone that way.
Last night I got a call from a former student. It was almost 11 and she texted me, “Are you up?” She’s isolated because she’s far from home, and she hasn’t had a second to stop and process. She calls me Mom. That’s the relationship I have with these kids.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times. Reprinted with permission. ■