1. VALENTINE’S DAY WHEN YOU OPEN YOUR EYES BUT THE
nightmare doesn’t go away, you’ve got no choice but to do something. Our first job now is to remember. Our second job is to act. Remember, act, repeat. Since that day, none of us are the same. But we are alive. And in memory of those who are not, we will remember and act for the rest of our lives. We’ve always been taught that as Americans, there is no problem that is out of our reach; that if we set our minds to it, we can solve anything. Anything except for our problem with gun violence. That can’t be fixed. When that problem flares, it’s “Hey, wow, that’s terrible. Too bad there’s nothing to be done about it.” Like it’s an act of God, or a natural disaster, something beyond our control that we are helpless to do any- thing about. Which defies all logic and reason.
We live in Florida, a place which has some experience with natural disasters. What happened on Valentine’s Day 2018 was neither natural nor an act of God. What happened that day was man-made—which means that as human beings, we have the capacity to do something about it.
Our generation has the obligation
to do something about it.
In class, we learned about something called entropy. I guess you could say that entropy came to our school that day, and since the shootings, we have seen that there are powerful forces that thrive in chaos. Entropy is what the universe wants to happen. The story of existence and human civilization is the struggle against entropy—working to stick together, not fly apart. To cooperate, not fight. To love, not hate.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I can’t speak for everyone. If I was my fresh- man or sophomore or halfway-through-junior- year self, I would just sit here and explain everything. That’s how pretentious and overconfident I was, and probably still am, to some ex- tent. But if there’s one thing I learned from the shootings, it’s that my freshman or sophomore or halfway-through-junior-year self couldn’t have survived that day. That’s the reason for this book—we all had to find a way to survive, and we all had to come up with our own answers, but it turned out that all of our answers were just different facets of the same answer. That’s why the shootings made us stronger instead of destroying us.
So I could sit here and tell you the heroic tale of a kid who was so cool under fire and so passionate about justice that he whipped out his camera while the shooter was still shooting. But the truth is that I was thinking about something one of my teachers had been talking about a couple of days before: in the sweep of time billions of people have lived on this planet, yet the world only remembers a few hundred of them. This means that everybody else is just a background character who will be forgotten into the nothingness that is time and the universe. My teacher was talking about being humble, but I’m way too myopic and self-involved for that. My thinking went more like this: “Am I going to be just an- other background character? Is this what it’s all been leading up to? Just a bullet to the head?” And I decided, “Okay, I may be another back- ground character, but if I’m going to die I’m going to die telling a damn good story that people need to hear.”
That’s why I hit record. I was almost acting out the role that a journalist plays in a war zone, where you have to ask these questions and stay focused on one simple thing. That’s what kept me calm. And to be honest, except for one split second when the fear rushed through me, I really thought it was just a drill. Even after we knew it wasn’t a drill, it was still so hard to accept the re- ality of it.
But here’s the important thing: my sister, Lau- ren, was fourteen that day, and there’s nothing myopic or self-involved about her. After the shooting stopped, she was crying so hysterically that I didn’t want to be around her. Her friends had been murdered, and I couldn’t stand being helpless to ease her pain. You could even say that’s how this whole movement started, at least for me—I was trying to avoid my sister.
That’s why I knew I couldn’t write this book alone. So I’m going to shut up now and let her take it from here. WELL, I GUESS I’LL START
off with the day that it all happened. It was February 14, Valentine’s Day. If I had to describe the overall feeling before it started, I’d tell you that it was a great day. Everybody was just so happy, giving each other chocolates and flowers and hugs, it was like the whole school was glowing. I remember joking with my friends like, “Oh my God, if I see another couple asking each other out, I’m gonna barf.”
When the fire alarm went off, I was in TV Production, my last class of the day. We’d already had a fire drill that morning, so we thought it was just a Valentine’s Day prank. Everybody was laughing, and we took our time packing up our bags. I still remember yelling at my friend Sam to hurry up because we were taking forever, and it’s really weird for me to think that just across the campus, total hell was going on.
The first time that I kind of realized some- thing was wrong was when we got to the bottom of the stairwell, because I looked out the window and across the bus loop and saw all this movement and realized that kids were running. Just from the look in those kids’ eyes, I knew something was wrong. I can’t really describe it any other way than it was like a movie. Everything just seemed so bright. But the teachers had told us we were going to have a drill with blanks being fired and actors running around and kids pre- tending they’d been shot and stuff, so every kid around me was laughing and joking with their friends. But somehow inside of me, I knew some- thing was really wrong. The other kids’ faces . . . it’s awful to describe that look in their eyes. And I remember turning and glancing down the hall- ways and seeing more kids run by with their roses and their chocolates, girls screaming and boys just crying like I’ve never seen before. Everybody around me thought it was a joke but I knew, I knew something was wrong. So I grabbed my four closest friends from that class, and even though they were smiling and stuff, I remember yelling, “Guys, something’s wrong here.” And they were like “Lauren, it’s just a joke, it’s just a drill.”
But I was so scared. I remember looking around me and paying really close attention to my surroundings because our dad’s an FBI agent and he’s been in shootings before, so literally every single time we’d go into a movie theater or mall, our parents would tell us to make sure we know where the exits are and if anything hap- pens, to make sure to breathe.“Try to relax so you don’t panic.”
I was born in 2003, so Columbine happened before I was born, 9/11 happened before I was born, and I’ve grown up since kindergarten with code-red drills. My generation has been trained to deal with things like this.
So even though I’m usually really anxious, I went into this weird mode of calm. I was just so determined to get back to our TV Production classroom because I knew we would be safest there. I was trying to run up the stairs as fast as I could, but all these juniors and seniors were like, “Stop running, guys, it’s fine.” When I was finally almost back to that classroom, I saw the librarians standing in the hallway, and all of a sudden their walkie-talkies were going off and they were listening to something, and then I just saw their faces go pale, and one librarian started screaming, “Code red! Code red! Everybody get back to your classrooms now!”
And kids still thought it was a joke. They were laughing
. That was how routine these drills had become. Or maybe it was more that the mind doesn’t want to believe what it doesn’t want to believe. We got back to my class, and my teacher had told us that if anything ever happened, we should go to the farthest room, which in TV Production is a tiny little room where they film the news. We were trying to open the door, but for some reason, the door was locked. So the three of us who thought it was real started freaking out, and we ran to the teacher’s desk and started digging around through the drawers trying to find a key. Finally, our teacher, Mr. Garner, came in and he was like, “Guys, this is serious.”
We opened the door to the back room, and the kids flooded into this tiny little space. My brain went into this mode where I was just completely determined to get into the safest place possible, so I grabbed my four close friends and said, “Guys, I’m not overreacting, we need to hide.” We have this set where there’s a little pocket in the corner, so we slid behind this board with nails sticking out into this little corner. By that point, we were all in shock. We just couldn’t think about what was going on, we were so scared and trying so hard to be as quiet as we could be. But there were these two kids who still thought it was a joke, and they were laughing. We wanted to yell at them to be quiet, but we thought it would de- feat the purpose, because if the shooter was walking down our hall he would hear us.
The worst part about hiding, for me at least,
was when we started getting texts. Oh my God, what’s that noise?
One read. It sounds like somebody’s shooting.
And the next one read, Someone’s running down our hall with a gun shooting. I love you guys so much!
And then another person wrote, Someone’s shooting into my class, there’s smoke in the air, it’s so thick
. Then came videos of people dying on the floor, people bleeding out, and nobody knew who they were because it was so blurry and their hair was covering their faces.
Then a kid with us managed to pull up the local news on his phone, so we were all watching the helicopter footage of kids running out of our school building. The headline was shooter at stoneman douglas high school, parkland, florida—possible injuries. I was sitting on the floor with my friends in that corner behind the board, holding hands, and I remember my friend Sam saying over and over again, “We’re gonna be another number. I don’t want to be an- other number.” And kids were saying, “Do you think we’re even gonna get on the news?” We didn’t know how many people were dead at that point. But that look in people’s eyes, us having to text our parents, I love you guys so much, there’s a code red, there’s a shooter at my school.
There were kids who had never even talked to each other before holding hands, quietly saying, “I love you.” I watched my friends crying but trying to stay quiet, trying to keep themselves from screaming or whimpering so the shooter wouldn’t be able to find us. Just as I was trying to text my family my phone died, which was horrific.
We were packed into that little room for three hours, just sitting there and holding hands and not knowing what to do. Through our group chat, the news flooded into our hiding place: Oh my God, he’s shooting down our hallway.
And other messages that said, He’s shooting into my room . . . I love you guys so much . . . Tell my parents I love them.
And, Oh my God, our teacher’s dead, bleeding out on the floor.
The absolute worst was, Oh my God, I think Alyssa’s dead
Alyssa was my friend.
Finally we heard someone running down our hall. We thought it was the shooter because there were so many rumors going around—there are three shooters, they’re in this building, in that building. Kids’ faces were just in shock, and the others started trying to squeeze into the corner where we were hiding, and they were sitting on top of us, so many kids that they started knocking over TV equipment and it was falling on us and kids were certain they were about to die, and were trying to suppress their screams.
Then we heard somebody bang on the door really hard, and we all got so scared. Seconds later, they kicked the door open and shouted, “SWAT! SWAT!” They told us to get out from where we were hiding and get our bags, then put our hands up in the air and walk out in a line, single file.
I remember the look on my teacher’s face as he was making sure every kid was there. He was like, “It’s okay, Lauren, you’re safe, it’s over.” And just him trying to reassure me . . . Things were so horrific and surreal. It’s just so hard to think some- thing like that is really happening, even as it’s happening to you.
They did a head count as we were walking out of the building—“Are you injured? Are you injured?
” Then they gave us all numbers. I was number ninety-one. And just knowing that I was ninety-one, that was my number, and they were telling us to get in a straight line with our hands above our heads again and walk out of the school, remembering how we were so happy before it started, it was now just all so weird and unreal. And when we were finally almost out, down the last hallway, all of a sudden they said, “Run! Run! Run!” We still didn’t know what was going on, we didn’t know if it was another shooter, so we all ran with our backpacks on and our hands above our heads, literally running for our lives and looking to see who was there and if any of our friends were missing. And the absolute worst—actually, I don’t want to talk about that yet.
When we got to the parking lot, I saw parents running down the streets from all angles, coming to find out if their kids were all right. And I saw my dad, and it was like the best feeling ever. That was when I finally lost it. Just hugging him and knowing only that morning, saying goodbye to my dad and mom, it could’ve been the last time I saw them, and seeing all the parents who didn’t know whether their kids were alive or not—it wasn’t just us running for our lives that day, but it was our parents, too. The helplessness I felt, I can’t even imagine what the parents felt. Everything seemed so bright and hot and loud, all ambulances and fire trucks and cop cars and kids being put into ambulances, making these horrific sounds. And my dad was crying so much, just saying, “I love you, Lauren” over and over, “I love you so much. . . . I’m so glad you’re here.”
The absolute worst? That was when I got home, when the weight of what had happened began to hit me. I know that sounds weird be- cause I made it home and I was safe, but I wanted to see what was happening and my parents went to David’s room because they hadn’t talked to him yet. So I got up and changed the channel to the news. All of a sudden I started seeing the faces, just like when other horrific tragedies hap- pen and you see the victims and think, “Oh, that’s so sad, those poor people.” But when you see the faces of your friends on the TV and hear that they’re being pronounced dead or missing—they said they were missing, but I knew they weren’t missing, they were dead—that was when some- thing inside me just broke. I was screaming and wailing like a possessed person because for the first time in my life, death became real to me.
And this was not just death, this was murder— mass
murder. My mom said the sound that came out of my mouth was “subhuman.” She even tried to get me to take a shot of whiskey because she didn’t know what else to do.
That was when David said he was going back to the school. I know he says it was about how I was crying, but he’s my older brother and he’s al- ways tried to protect me. I think he felt helpless and couldn’t deal with it—he has this personality where his way of dealing with stuff is by getting things done. And he’s a journalist, too, so he knew how things would probably go. He said, “I have to go. I need to tell the reporters what happened.” And my parents physically tried to stop him. My dad closed the door and said, “We are not allowing you to go back to that school.” But David was just so determined. He said, “Dad, I need to do this. If they don’t get any stories, this will just fade away. I have to make sure this stays in the news.” So finally, my parents kind of gave in and told him, “Well, we’re not going to drive you.” And David said, “Okay, I’m taking my bike.”
And that was how everything started. BEFORE WE GO ANY FURTHER,
I have to interrupt Lauren and tell you that I think her last sentence gets it wrong. From my point of view, what really happened was that I said a lot of things in front of the cameras that night—it’s all a blur now so I can’t even remember most of it. But all the media people picked the same sound bite: “We’re the kids, you’re the grown-ups. Please do something.” And when I said that, I was thinking about Lauren. It’s almost like I was so numb and angry, I needed her to feel for me.
So you could say everything began with her howling at our TV, but that wouldn’t be true, either. Anger will get you started but it won’t keep you going, so I’m pretty sure I would have burned out after a few days or weeks. The real beginning came two days later at Cameron Kasky’s house. I didn’t even know him that well, but he invited an amazing collection of people to his home, and a few others were so moved to act that they just showed up on their own. I want to say their names: Delaney Tarr, Ryan Deitsch, Jaclyn Corin, Sarah Chadwick, Alex Wind. And Emma González, the beating heart who keeps us all sane. That’s why I said I can’t speak for anyone but myself. Lauren and I are telling our story to show you how we grew up into people who felt like we had to do something and could do something. We definitely think that’s valuable information, and we hope that seeing things through our eyes will give you ideas of your own. Because none of us can do this alone and we need you, basically. But we’re all really different people. We don’t even have the same opinions on gun control. The only thing we share completely is what Lauren said when she was getting started—we were all born after Columbine, we all grew up with Sandy Hook and terrorism and code-red active-shooter drills.
We all have grown up conditioned to be afraid. And we’re all sick and tired of being afraid.