Candles lit for vigil

April Sharp //

Gun violence is a national epidemic and public health crisis. You can’t turn on the TV or scroll through social media these days without news of another mass shooting. In Baltimore, where I’ve lived for the past decade, shootings and homicides are so common that many don’t even make the news. In the hospital here, I’ve seen children shot in almost every body part, but as a pediatric neurologist, I typically get called about the most devastating gunshot wounds to the head or spine. Surrounded by this daily trauma, I had almost become numb to the constant threat plaguing my city and our country.

Until Uvalde. Until 19 children and 2 teachers were killed by a gunman at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022. Like many people across the country, my apathy was instantly drowned by a flood of emotions, but there was an unexpected feeling amongst the sadness and rage. It was guilt. Uvalde wasn’t the first mass casualty school shooting in my lifetime. It wasn’t even the first elementary school shooting in recent memory. But it was the first time my own children were interchangeable with the victims. I have a 4th grader and a kindergartner in a predominantly Latinx school. It could have just as easily been our elementary school in Baltimore on national news. As I mourned the horrendous end of these young lives, I realized that I never really paid respects to the many lives lost in other school shootings over the past decade. Shamefully, I barely even remembered that some of them happened.

To right this wrong, I began to read about prior school shootings. This is how I discovered Parkland Speaks, a compilation of written accounts, poetry, and artwork by survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, on February 14, 2018. There were 17 deaths, and 17 more were injured. There is no better way to understand the impact of an event than from the mouths (or pens) of the survivors. In this case, the authors are teenagers, who were subjected to “a tragedy no one should ever have to face” (4), according to Sarah Lerner, the book’s editor, a teacher at MSD, and also a survivor. Their collected writings embody a violated innocence, still pure in essence, but now changed forever.

Parkland Speaks was composed as an act of healing. While the subject matter occasionally becomes political, it does not have a hidden agenda. Instead, it shows the vulnerable lives of children trying to process and move on from devastating trauma. Each piece is unique, just like each student, but several themes emerge that illustrate what it really means to survive.

I’m someone else now, and this new person doesn’t like fireworks, knocking on doors or walls, loud popping noises, the sound of glass shattering.

“The World Is Moving On” by Alexis Gendron

Sounds, smells, and vivid images “like a war zone” (117) pervade the descriptions of what happened on that Valentine’s Day. These sensations not only exist in their memories, but are also replayed in their heads over and over “like a movie on repeat” (100). Some authors try to balance feelings of doubt or disbelief with the realities they experienced. Several reference difficulties sleeping and nightmares when they do sleep. The survivors describe many symptoms of acute stress disorder, which is very common after traumatic events. About a third of mass shooting survivors go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the chronic counterpart of acute stress disorder, which conveys long-term social and mental health risks (Cimolai et al., 2021). In the days to weeks after the shooting, the students already recognize that their lives will never be the same: “I came out of that building a different person than the one who left for school that day” (17).

I got to go back. Seventeen others did not. I have the chance to live my life, to heal. Seventeen others do not.

“All Over Again” by Caitlynn Tibbetts

That’s when I realized… I left them in that building.

“Breaking Silence” by Alyson Sheehy

Some of the authors expressed regret or remorse that they survived while others did not. There were also intimations of feeling responsible for the deaths of friends or feeling guilty about not saving victims who screamed for help. Survivor’s guilt can be a symptom of PTSD, but may also occur on its own. It can worsen the emotional distress of traumatic events and contribute to negative self-worth (Murray et al., 2021). Survivor’s guilt is associated with an increased risk of suicide (Cimolai et al., 2021), and unfortunately, two survivors of the Parkland shooting committed suicide the following year. Survival of such immense tragedy should be a relief, but these teenagers demonstrate the burden of being lucky to be alive.

Though it continued to be hard, I looked forward to the next day of school because I knew that when I got home that day, I would have healed a little bit more.

“Reclaim the Nest” by Danielle Rittman

Despite the many lingering symptoms of trauma, there is hope in the pages of Parkland Speaks. It is nearly impossible to imagine how a community moves forward after such devastation, and yet these young authors show us the way. They baked cookies for their classmates on the first day back to school. They did yoga together, laying out the mat of their forever absent friend, so she could join them in spirit. They petted and cuddled with therapy dogs. One author was so inspired by the healing power of therapy dogs that she got her own dog trained, so he could “help people who truly needed it” (p. 103). They demonstrated to themselves and the world that they were more than a community struck by tragedy. They were #MSDStrong, and they were ready to start a movement.

[I]f all our government and President can do is send “thoughts and prayers,” then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.

“We Call BS speech” by Emma González

While some may have bullets,

our voices must be our ammunition.

“A Zoo Animal” by Rebecca Schneid

She said to me, with a look of hope in her eyes,

“I can’t believe this is happening.”

“One Month and Ten Days” by Kaitlyn Puller

That movement hasn’t stopped. Started by Parkland survivors, March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018 was the largest youth-led protest since the Vietnam War, and they marched again on June 11, 2022 in response to the Uvalde school shooting. “Tired of asking not to die” (p. 74), they made a commitment to hold the government accountable for this era of unchecked gun violence. They have given a voice to the victims, who can no longer speak for themselves. That voice is young and proud and hopeful. It is resilient and stubborn. The innocence that was washed away in a matter of minutes on February 14, 2018 was replaced by conviction to prevent the unnecessary death and suffering caused by guns every day in this country. While Parkland Speaks is not directly intended to be political, it is easy to see how the energy of its young authors inspired people around the world to join their cause.

The students at MSD have shown us the complexities of survival. The children in Uvalde are just beginning to process the events of May 24, 2022. But when they are ready, we will also hear their stories of tragedy and hope. They will add their voices to the movement to end gun violence. And hopefully one day we will no longer need to remember the victims or survivors of school shootings because children will once again be safe in schools.

Works Cited:

Cimolai, Valentina et al. “Effects of Mass Shootings on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents.” Current Psychiatry Reports vol. 23: 12 (2021).

Murray, Hannah et al. “Survivor Guilt: A Cognitive Approach.” Cognitive behaviour therapist vol. 14 e28. 16 Sep. 2021.

Image Credit:

Fabrice Florin, “Tam High Vigil for Parkland School Shooting,” February 18, 2020. Wikimedia Commons.

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