When I was 6, I took the bus with my siblings to the small brick building that housed our rural community’s elementary school. It was a place where your mom could walk straight into your classroom if she was picking you up for a doctor’s appointment or dropping off cupcakes, and permission slips were for coveted field trips, not to designate who was allowed to pick you up after school.
When I was 14, I went to a high school with an “open” campus, where there was no perimeter fence, everyone walked outside unrestricted between classes and a “drill” meant standing in the parking lot across the street telling bad jokes while we waited for imaginary fires to be doused.
By the time I was 16, I’d lost exactly two people in my life — my grandfathers, who died, not unexpectedly, after lingering illnesses that weren’t uncommon for their age or the times. If I heard about anyone my age dying, it was linked to a tragic congenital illness or a freakish car accident.
So, sitting in the gymnasium at Booker High School Wednesday morning waiting for a student-run assembly (in lieu of a “walkout”) marking the one-month anniversary of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it was hard to put myself in their shoes.
When I was that age, my biggest fear was whether I would pass the math test I hadn’t studied for, not whether I might have 17 fewer friends the following day.
Most of these students weren’t even born when the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School took place, the event we tend to point to as the beginning of our national school shooting nightmare. They have never known any other reality than one where “Code Red” lockdowns, backpack searches and active shooter drills are routine.
According to an analysis by The Washington Post, more than 150,000 students in at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a campus shooting since Columbine. But thanks to the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of social media, even those who haven’t are painfully aware of the threat and intimately exposed to the carnage.
Teenagers have long been chastised for risky behaviors tied to a sense of feeling immortal. Now there’s probably not a generation alive more aware that another day can’t be taken for granted.
Just the other day, I read a heartbreaking message on Facebook posted by a teacher who’d been through such a shooter drill with her elementary school students. She wrote of trying to soothe their trembles, tears and terror while huddled on the floor listening to manufactured gunfire. “When will it be over?” a first-grader asked her, over and over.
Knowing what I do about childhood trauma and its effects, I wonder about how this collective and oppressive angst and anxiety will play out as these students move into adulthood. Will the changes they hope to create offset the trauma they’ve incurred?
Local students have responded with the same courage and determination as their Parkland peers. Within 48 hours of hearing about the Valentine’s Day attack, Booker students delivered a petition with more than 220 student signatures to their principal, Rachel Shelley, asking for more resources and regulations devoted to safety. The following week, Shelley took their message to Tallahassee, where legislators eventually passed a package of reforms that included the potential for some school staff to be trained to carry guns. (Booker students told me they found that prospect more alarming than reassuring.)
The tightly-controlled assembly demonstrated that administrators were as determined to maintain control as the students were to be heard.
“Typically, we don’t allow protests or walkouts,” said an admittedly nervous Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Todd Bowden, shortly before the 10 a.m. start. “This is a unique response to a unique event that happened close to home and it seemed appropriate to allow our students to grieve and to use their own voices. I’m anxious to see what they have planned, but I’m also anxious for it to be over and for them to be back in class.”
The program was, unsurprisingly, restrained and predictable. There was a presentation of the colors, a welcome from the student body president and comments from students urging their peers to register to vote, contact their Congressmen, “say something if you see something.” The choir delivered a powerful rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the only thing that got the students on their feet and clapping in unison.
Afterward, Shelley hugged the speakers, telling them, “You were awesome, but I am so sorry you have to be in this position.” She told me she’d been “mesmerized” the day before by her student body’s polished reaction to a Code Red drill, following the training they’d been given like a well-oiled military squad.
“I’m exceptionally proud of their initiative, proud to hear their voices and proud they are taking this seriously,” she said, apologizing for her tears. “But I’m also feeling sad because we shouldn’t have to do this.
“To think about why we’re at this point, it hurts. We never had to deal with any of this. They grew up with Sandy Hook. We didn’t.”
Later, a group of students stood at the center of the school courtyard to read the names of the 17 Parkland victims, pausing after each name for the release of a white dove balloon. Though no one was aware, apparently releasing this many balloons in a 24-hour period was outlawed in Florida for ecological reasons in 2012; just imagine how many balloons might have been spared over the past six years if gun reform had been an equal legislative priority.
Then the bell rang and everyone went back to class.
It was just another day. Another day when anything was possible.
When I was in school, that meant life extended ahead without limits, full of potential opportunities and increasing freedoms.
For today’s students, it means something entirely different.
Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.