Danielle Tcholakian | Longreads | March 2018 | 14 minutes (3,629 words)
Over the past several weeks, many of us have been familiar with the voices and faces of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were murdered on February 14. The students appeared to quickly shunt away their grief, giving adults across the U.S. a schooling on effective activism, taking to Twitter and effectively employing media outlets to push for policy change so that other teenagers won’t have to experience the terror they did.
In turn, many of the adults that other adults have elected to positions of power — adults we apparently decided were such worthy and good decision-makers that we would pay their salary out of our own pockets — have shown us what very small people they are, and how terribly unqualified they are to be people in the public eye, let alone leaders.
Florida state representative Elizabeth Porter delivered a truly inane speech on the statehouse floor in which she conflated the Parkland teens with children asking for a law to be passed banning homework.
“Are there any children on this floor?” she asks. “Are there any making laws?”
After watching these kids for the past few weeks: maybe there should be. They certainly seem more principled, more driven, more committed, more thoughtful and more empathetic than anyone currently in government at any level in this country.
They are also more prepared. Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick has written several great pieces on the Parkland teens, including one on how the type of education they received prepared them for this moment.
Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one.
Lithwick makes the case that unlike the education provided to most of our nation’s children, the Parkland students’ education was truly preparing them to be adults, to advocate for themselves and others, to know when they’re being lied to, and to reject those lies out of hand.
Margaret Sullivan wrote at The Washington Post that the students’ phenomenal communication skills “could save lives.” She credits their aptitude with the very thing older generations have always sneered at: The fact they’ve been steeped in the internet and social media platforms for most of their conscious lives.
Of course, not all teens — not all people! — are good at this. But the Parkland teens seem incredibly adept at it. They are both earnest and, somehow, despite all they’ve been through, good-humored. They express gratitude when companies step in and listen to their reasoning, showing a level of grace that few in politics appear to possess.
They are firm and consistent in their demands, but despite what adults who would like them to stop kicking up a fuss say, very rarely, if ever, disrespectful.
And then they have to put up with responses like this:
And that’s just one random Twitter user. The teens are up against people with very real power, and very toxic power: Dinesh D’Souza, Laura Ingraham, elected officials. Splinter produced a great profile of the Parkland teens’ AP government teacher, which included a line about one of his students that almost made me have to stop reading, lest I grind my uninsured teeth to dust: “David Hogg has stopped checking his email because of death threats.”
And yet the kids deal with it all so deftly. They get angry, yes, but in a righteous and rarely mean way. They shut down grown adults who are cruel to them with pithy responses, signaling that they know what, and who, is and isn’t worth their time, and at their level.
It can be heartening to watch, but social media scrutiny seems to be one more way we’re denying these kids their full childhoods. Their Twitter accounts before the shooting were normal, silly, sometimes incomprehensible teen thoughts. Now, they are all business, single-minded in their focus on preventing another tragedy. One teen told The New York Times “that he did not feel comfortable even tweeting his opinion of Black Panther.”
On occasions when they dare to smile for photos or on talk shows, critics swoop in to question their grief. Thank goodness these kids can still smile. We’re certainly not doing anything to help them feel safe or happy or cared for.
I’ve written before about how breaking news can be overwhelming, especially when it involves a tragedy and relentless media coverage. It’s been said ad nauseum that this time feels different. There is a charged element to it, an unusual sense of hope where hope hasn’t been felt before. And all credit for that is due to the teens who, in the midst of tremendous grief and trauma, are determined to do everything they can to not let any other children have to suffer through what they went through — and who are successfully not letting the usual power brokers pull focus from their fight.
It is awe-inspiring and it gives one hope, but it also breaks my heart. Being a teen is already so hard, is already so fraught. Hearing the word “precocious” still gets my hackles up, because the word so often seems employed when adults see youth, charm and intellectual curiosity and respond by foisting more onto children than they should have had to deal with. Children often dealt with the burdens placed on them anyway — humans, especially young ones, are remarkably resilient. But should they have to be?
I am grateful to the Paarkland teens for giving us hope, but concerned that we are not giving them anything in return. No sense of safety, no sense that there is anyone who can protect them.
And that we’re doing the same thing to children everywhere.
It appears we’ve reached a generation that will no longer abide the negligence that many previous ones have put up with. But at what cost? We have traumatized generations of young Americans — literally shell-shocked children in ostensibly idyllic suburbs. I think frequently of the image of Texas Representative Joe Barton and his two sons after a GOP lawmakers’ baseball practice was shot at last year. Barton is on his phone; his older son is crying into his hands; the youngest is staring into the distance, having experienced terror firsthand.
How is this kid going to heal? How will the Parkland kids heal? How will any of them ever feel safe again? Are we even giving them a chance?
* * *
I talked to Parkland mother Elyse Claprood and her daughter, Annabel, who have gotten very engaged in local and national politics.
“You know how there’s wedding crashers?” Claprood asked me. “Well, we’re government meeting crashers.”
They started the night after the shooting, showing up at a meeting at the local performing arts center where Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi was in attendance, along with “all of the people that were leaders in the community, that were going to set up logistics for the disaster.”
Claprood walked in with Annabel. “We introduced ourselves, and they threw us out.” A woman in charge of the Red Cross told Claprood that “this was all very traumatic for Annabel and the meeting might be too graphic for her.” They left, but they didn’t give up.
At the CNN Town Hall, Annabel asked her county’s representative, Ted Deutch, “Will my school campus be safe when I return? Because I plan to not return until I know that something is going to change. And I’m not the only one.” She and her mother let a public radio reporter shadow them on a frustrating, disheartening trip to their state Capitol. Annabel talked to The Washington Post, where she was frank and honest about how traumatized she is, describing how “she thought she was coping okay,” days after the gunman tapped on her classroom door before opening fire in the classroom next door. There’s a moment a few days later, at the restaurant where she works, where Annabel accidentally locks out her boss. “When he shook the door, she hit the floor and curled into the fetal position.”
Despite their seeming ease in the public eye, Claprood was wary at the start of our conversation. It’s not just the online trolling: Her neighbors and her daughters’ classmates get death threats now. “I have to be careful what I say,” she told me.
Like many of the Parkland families, Claprood and Annabel have taken on this mantle of activism with gusto. Claprood is still working at her full-time job, but several nights a week she’ll go to a county meeting, or a school board meeting, or a city council meeting. She wants things to get better for her daughter, she wants her daughter to be unafraid of going back to school. But so far not a single thing has changed, she said.
“We’re maybe trying to work towards feeling safe, but that feeling is definitely back to square one” after this past week, Claprood said. “They’re terrified to go back. Teachers are afraid to go back.”
Annabel’s friends who have been attending school have told them that some days their classes have only three or four students in them. Two kids got in trouble for bringing knives to school, and Claprood wasn’t surprised. “They feel like they have to protect themselves. The perception is that there’s no one keeping them safe.”
Claprood is concerned about Annabel’s trauma, of course. She is 16, just a sophomore. She walked right past the shooter moments before he banged on the locked door of her classroom and then opened fire on the class next to hers. A SWAT team rushed her out of the school building over bloody drag marks where they’d pulled the bodies of her murdered schoolmates across the floor. She was left to stand outside the school while the shooter was still at large, until an old camp counselor of hers who lives near the school saw her and brought her into her house to keep her safe until her mother arrived.
Grief counselors have come to their house, and Claprood took Annabel to a community center the day after the shooting where grief counselors were available for students. But she and Annabel are less concerned with their emotional well-being right now, and more concerned about being killed. Annabel and her friends decided not to go to the D.C. march with their schoolmates, or even the local one in their town, because they’re afraid of getting caught in the middle of a crowd, Claprood said.
“The only way they’re willing to participate is if they’re at the end of the crowd, so they can run away. And they can’t be sure they won’t be swept into the middle,” Claprood explained.
She broke into a sad, sort of choking laugh. “What the hell? Who thinks like that?” she asked me. “And what am I going to say? I don’t know what to say.”
She asked if I have any kids. I don’t. She wanted to explain what it feels like, to have a kid, to try to keep that kid safe, to know you can’t.
“When you drive your child to kindergarten for the first time, you’ve been caring for that kid. You’ve been carrying that baby around. You’re used to walking your kid into daycare holding their hand and kissing them goodbye.”
But when kids get to kindergarten, and then for the rest of their lives, parents are expected to just drop them off in front of the school, let them walk in on their own. Let them face the world on their own, even just for a day at a time.
“The kids are usually fine,” Claprood said, laughing. “Sometimes they cry. But you cry all the way to work. All these crazy parent thoughts come into your head.”
I asked Claprood if she had gotten any counseling. She had been through an incredible trauma, too. She said she heard of a support group for parents recently, and went to a meeting, but felt that the parents there were so much worse off than she was. Their kids had seen even more or lost their best friends. She seemed more comfortable processing her experience by trying to do something to make her daughter feel safe again. For her, the most present feelings seem to be anger and frustration at the inaction by people in power.
Annabel, too, seems focused on wrangling something positive out of this trauma. She is writing bills to present to her state representatives next session.
“This forced her to act like a 30-year-old versus a 16-year-old, but at least she’s making some positive moves,” Claprood said. “I’m hoping, in her case, that she is one of those who rise above.”
One thing that gave me hope in the aftermath of the shooting, was one of the students’ teachers, Jeff Foster, who has spent 20 years teaching AP government at the school and taught many of the teens the information that prepared them to be informed, articulate, and savvy about the nefarious arguments made against them.
When Foster goes back to school he’s going to also start teaching geography. Like his other colleagues, Foster has volunteered to absorb a period left behind by a teacher who was killed.
But also, since the “massacre,” as he calls it, he’s been waking up in the middle of the night sweating.
“I sleep an hour, wake up and sleep another hour,” Foster says. He says he usually remembers his dreams, but hasn’t remembered any lately. He thinks it’s because he just hasn’t been able to get deep enough sleep.
I wondered about the other teachers in the teens’ lives. I got in touch with Melissa Falkowski, who teaches newspaper, creative writing and 11th grade English, as she prepared to take her students to Washington, D.C. to cover the March for Our Lives on March 24. They’ll produce work for their own school website, the Eagle Eye, and they’re also being given the reins to The Guardian‘s website for the day of the march — “which is crazy,” Falkowski told me, laughing.
Falkowski was with half of her newspaper students the day of the shooting. The fire alarm went off shortly before school was supposed to be dismissed, so she started to lead her students into the hallway. There was also a lockdown going into effect, but it was hard to understand that at first. Everyone was confused. In the hallway a security person told her “it’s a code red, to go back.”
She’s still not sure when she started to understand what was happened. She remembers shepherding her students back into the classroom, standing in the doorway, shouting to other students to come in, holding the door open for them with her body half in the hallway, then locking it and turning around and seeing her students, obediently in the little swath of the classroom where they could disappear, and hopefully be safe.
She had a group text with other teachers in her department, and one colleague texted them all, saying there was a shooter on her floor, her window had been shot out, she’d been grazed by a bullet. Even then, none of it made sense.
“It didn’t really sink in, at the moment. I didn’t process it until days later,” she said. “Even after we started to understand what had happened, you’re in shock and you can’t comprehend what’s happening.”
She counted and saw she had only 17 of her 25 students, plus two others she’d picked up in the hallway, out of breath after having been ordered to run across campus from another building. Students sent texts and confirmed all their missing classmates had been pulled into the classroom right below them, were all together, were safe.
The situation felt weird, Falkowski remembers. Something wasn’t right. She made the decision to pack all of the kids, and herself, into the closet. She realized if she’d had all of her students, they wouldn’t have fit. They stood packed in tight, shoulder to shoulder. It got so hot, she let them crack the door slightly ajar. They stayed there for an hour and a half until she heard something in the hallway outside and pulled the closet door shut.
Someone entered the classroom. She listened carefully and thought it sounded like they used keys. Voices claimed to be the police, asked if there was anyone in the room. She and her students remained silent. How could they know it was the police? They’d heard there could be more than one shooter, that the shooter hadn’t been found. “Do I tell them I’m here?” she wondered. “Is it really the police?” The voices repeated their claim, their question. It was the police, was anyone in there? Everyone was frozen.
Falkowski decided the safest thing to do was to quietly tell them they were there. “I didn’t want to burst out of this closet and scare them and have them shoot me.” She quietly warned her students first. “I said to the kids, ‘Okay, I’m going to tell them we’re in here.”
It was the police. They proceeded to down the hall, clearing every classroom, depositing the teachers and students in Falkowski’s classroom, until there were 160 kids and six teachers packed in, sitting on the floor because there wasn’t enough room anywhere else. Some kids were crying; some were stoic. Many were on their cell phones, trying to let their families know they were okay for now.
“I still think it’s hard to comprehend what happened,” she added. “There’s still sort of this sense of disbelief.”
The county offered counseling services to teachers as well, but she’s found working with the students on the newspaper, and even doing interviews with journalists, has been most helpful as “its own form of therapy.” It seems to help some of the students, too.
“In the space of reporting, there’s room for us to talk about how each of us is feeling personally,” she said. The issue they’ve just closed, to be released when they’re back from spring break, is a memorial issue. Some kids struggled with the interviews more than others, but their peers stepped in and took over when they needed relief.
She’s hopeful that spring break might give the kids time to process their feelings. She confirmed what Claprood had told me, that both students and teachers have struggled to make it to school. “There are teachers that aren’t doing well, there are students that aren’t doing well,” she said. “Everyone deals with stuff in their own time and in their own way.”
* * *
Danielle Tcholakian is a columnist for Longreads.