FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – They were baptized by gunfire their freshman year, bonded as they spent hours hiding under desks, inextricably linked by tragedy. For the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Class of 2021, high school was never about Friday night football and innocent first kisses.
Seventeen students and staff were killed in 2018 in a mass shooting on Valentine’s Day. As the students struggled to define high school apart from tragedy, their lives were upended once again – this time by the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of them are isolated at home on a computer, their hard-fought normal routines altered and their support systems splintered.
Sorrow reverberated Sunday as Americans, including President Joe Biden, joined the Florida community in remembering the 17 lives lost three years ago in the shooting.
The president called on Congress to strengthen gun laws, including requiring background checks on all gun sales.
After the shooting in 2018, students rallied for gun control and landed on the cover of Time magazine. That was just a sliver of the experience of those in this largely affluent, palm-tree studded suburb. In the shadows, many struggle to manage daily life.
Their only full year at Stoneman Douglas was as sophomores. Many students felt retraumatized every time they walked by the cordoned-off freshman building, the site of the shooting.
Abby Price’s best friend, Alyssa Alhadeff, was killed that day.
“I struggled every morning to wake up and go to the school where I lost so many friends,” the 17-year-old said. “I struggled to find a purpose of just doing simple tasks in life without my best friend by my side.”
The two were like inseparable sisters, playing on the same soccer team and even sharing a birthday. They’d dream about what high school would bring while listening to the Miley Cyrus song “The Climb.”
Abby’s family moved to North Carolina for her junior year, hoping for a fresh start. She was terrified of a new school and forging new friendships, but there was a sense that her life was no longer just her own, that she’d create memories and chase dreams for Alyssa as well.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing Abby into virtual school and making it difficult to connect with the friends she’d made.
“I started to lose myself again,” she said.
Proms and pep rallies were forgotten in the wake of the pandemic, depriving Abby and the Parkland seniors yet again of traditional rites of passage and a normal high school experience.
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Even graduation remains in limbo as closure to their high school years bookended by tragedies.
“At the very most, we’re going to have a digital graduation,” senior Ryan Servaites said. “And that’s going to be the ceremonious end to four years of trauma.”
Servaites, who hid under a chair in the auditorium for two hours, texting, “I love you” to his parents, found healing in activism. He joined the student-led March For Our Lives, registered first-time voters in various states and works on gun control policy.
“I was trying to be an activist, whereas inside, I wasn’t very OK with myself,” Servaites said. “I’ve learned to cope. I’ve learned to come to terms with what I’ve gone through.”
Samara Barrack struggled to connect with friends after the shooting, saying some classmates changed as they dealt with the tragedy in different ways.
“I saw people that were like, ‘I just need to get high’ or ‘I just need to paint,’” she said. “Neither of those things would help me.”
Samara was on the cheerleading squad, but the pandemic canceled most events, making it hard to bond over practice and games. Her closest friends go to other schools, and she longs for senior-year traditions.
“Even if I’m not best friends with those people, it’s an experience,” said Samara, who focused on a part-time job and a new start at the University of Central Florida where she’s enrolled this summer.
Many of the students view college as a sorely needed do-over.
Most Stoneman Douglas graduates go to college, and before the shooting, Aria Siccone never questioned that she would, too.
“People say college experience is the best time in their life, and I wish I could do that. But at the same time, I know I wouldn’t be able to handle it,” said Aria, 17, who avoids malls, movie theaters and other public places. She’s jealous of friends who’ve had happy times at other schools. The former honors student fears a nagging voice that says she can’t be successful without college.
“It’s scary to think about because going to college is the normal path, and I just want to have the normal path,” she said.
On the brink of their next step, many of the students find a balance between mourning the tragedy and moving forward, for themselves and those who died.
“As children, we are supposed to be the innocent ones; we are supposed to be untouchable,” said Servaites, 18. “Now we’re at this point where we can’t get that childhood we deserve, and as a result, we’re angry, we’re upset, and we’re just trying to do something about it.”
Abby Price isn’t sure what her future will bring. Wherever she goes, her purpose will be Alyssa. Perhaps that’s why she feels drawn back to Florida.
“I find it impossible to figure out what I want to do with my life since school was never my main focus these past four years,” she said. “I most definitely want to go to school in Florida and see where life takes me.”
Contributing: Bobby Caina Calvan
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