Poetry, film, maps: Parkland students quietly process trauma
PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — When freshman Eden Hebron wanted to capture the searing experience of being in a classroom where a fellow student killed her best friend and three other people, she turned to poetry. The result was “1216,” named after the number of the room at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:
“The screams blasting in my ear. The blood still won’t disappear. I scream their names, call for my friends. Nothing else to do, they are gone, they are dead.”
The community at Marjory Stoneman Douglas has become best-known for the handful of charismatic students who have channeled their grief and outrage over the Feb. 14 shooting to reignite the national debate on gun control. But most of the 3,000-plus students are coming to terms with the trauma in quieter ways — writing poetry, filming documentaries, reconstructing the crime scene and trying to balance their memories with the need to move on.
The attack that ultimately claimed 17 lives began in the hallway outside Hebron’s honors English class. No one had time to take cover. Two of her slain classmates had tried to hide under the same classroom table that shielded her. In the shower, she sometimes still feels as trapped as she did that day, when she witnessed the death of her best friend, 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff.
If the poem helps express her pain, a new tattoo illustrates her efforts to move forward. While on spring break in Israel, she had a heart-shaped stem with flower petals and the classroom number drawn onto her left leg.
“The stem represents the growth that I have gone through,” she said. “It’s still healing.”
Freshman Samantha Deitsch also used poetry to document her shock at the loss of her 14-year-old friend, Jamie Guttenberg.
“I frantically start typing a text to her,” she wrote. “I have some hope sending ‘ARE YOU OKAY???’ Less than one minute later my hope faded away. She has been confirmed dead. Emotions fill up as I can’t feel my head.”
The poem helped her persuade her older brothers, who are among Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ leading advocates for gun control, to include her in their advocacy with the Never Again group; they initially excluded her, trying to protect her from the online trolling they were experiencing.
“They wanted to kind of make things normal for me and let me go to school,” Deitsch said.
But there is little that is normal about attending class with clear backpacks, armed guards and checkpoints where students must show ID badges. “I’m going to be in this school for three more years and I don’t want to be sitting here in silence,” Deitsch said.
A student-led project “Stories Untold” is recording details from the shooting in video interviews. Project member Giuliana Matamoros, a junior, said the gun control movement that now seems headquartered in Parkland needs more voices to be successful.
“Without the stories, without the vivid details, they won’t know how traumatizing it is to see all that stuff,” she said.
Junior Ivanna Paitan has conducted “investigations” with classmates in her Advanced Placement Psychology class, where she had been trapped by gunfire under her teacher’s podium. In long discussions, sometimes during class time, students delve into every detail of the mass shooting again and again, trying to figure out exactly what happened, and why.
Their investigations have produced a reconstruction of part of the crime scene — a hand-drawn layout of Room 1213, with squares illustrating desks, tables and other classroom fixtures. Dotted lines cross most of the page, beginning at the classroom door in one corner and covering most of the desks, illustrating the spray of bullets that trapped Paitan, injured three of her classmates and killed a fourth student.
Paitan carries the image on her phone and displays it as the easiest way to relate what happened to her. She said she sometimes dreams that she is caught in another shooting at school, scrambling to hide from approaching gunfire with her friends yet again.
“No child should ever have to accept their death. I had to accept mine,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything to stop it. It’s just those kind of little things that people should hear.”
Unsurprisingly, some students have a hard time articulating exactly how they feel about returning to class on a campus that had been a killing zone.
“I’m fine, if you want to put it that way,” said junior Samantha Grady, who was injured by gunfire alongside her best friend, Helena Ramsay, who died while trying to shield her.
″‘Grab a book. Maybe it will help.’ Those were her exact words,” Grady said. “She was selfless. I wish she was more selfish.”
Grady has found little ways to keep her friend’s memory close, such as wearing a lip gloss Helena gave her every day. Helena got her hooked on wearing fuzzy socks, so Samantha has a drawer full of them. She still listens to the K-pop songs that Helena introduced her to.
She’s keeping her grades up, but admits that’s more out of habit than anything else.
“I don’t really know what drives me to keep going to school. The person who I am now is definitely different than the person I was before — not only, like, mentally, but, like, study-wise,” Grady said. “I guess it’s just the fact that I’ve got to do it. In order to help me do better in life, I’ve just got to push through.”
Talking on a sunny, breezy day in a Coral Springs park, it was easier for Grady to slip back into the moments right after the shooting, when she was being treated at a hospital and still hoping her friend had miraculously survived. She had sung the hymn “God Will Take Care of You” to comfort herself then, and she hit its high notes without faltering while singing the first two verses in a recent interview.
Sharing stories from inside the building helps lighten the burden of unspeakable memories, said Jason Leavy, who was in his freshman geography class during the attack.
It has been especially hard for Leavy to return to band practice, where 14-year-old victim Alex Schacter played the trombone.
Schacter’s seat had been left open in the rehearsals for the spring concert, a performance of “Southern Hymn,” which evokes “Amazing Grace” with its slow swelling of horns that seems to gently pull listeners forward through waves of grief. After a few weeks, the empty chair made practices too difficult and it was removed to help the students focus.
“It’s hard to comprehend that he’s not going to come in tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ That he’s never coming back ever again,” Leavy said. “I just think about playing the piece as best as I can and I put everything else out of my mind.”
Reconstructing their experiences of Feb. 14 can be cathartic as students try to make sense of their brushes with death, according to psychiatrist Dr. Francisco Cruz, who is affiliated with the Florida-based Ketamine Health Centers.
“Those that are able to do that are able to get through the experience much better than those who isolate and avoid ... the ones that aren’t willing to confront it,” Cruz said.
But he warned that reliving the experience also can be re-traumatizing if not done in a therapeutic way. Students can become “so obsessed on that moment” that they cannot move on with normal activities, he said.
For a number of students, talking about the terror that day offers a way to honor their fallen friends, to bring home to outsiders the enormity of what was lost and just how much has changed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“Before all this, nobody knew where Parkland was. ... I think we were a pretty cool school. We had our moments. It was fun,” junior Kyrah Simon said.
“Now,” she said, “I feel it’s like a national landmark-type thing.”