PARKLAND, Florida — “Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories” needed to be written, its authors believe, but wish desperately it hadn’t.
The book by 43 students and teachers who lived through February’s high school massacre gives a poignant, raw, and sometimes horrifically graphic look into the six-minute shooting spree where 17 died and its aftermath as a well-off Fort Lauderdale suburb suddenly found itself mourning in a global spotlight that has dimmed but will never reach black.
“I lost my sense of innocence. I lost my sense of security. I lost my ability to see the world as I had only hours earlier. I would give anything to go back,” wrote journalism teacher Sarah Lerner, who edited the 192-page paperback of essays, poems, photos and art published Tuesday by Crown Books.
Lerner and three student contributors gathered recently in a park a mile from the school to talk about the tragedy and how the book helped them cope as a veneer of normalcy returns weeks before the anniversary. Nearby, a few dozen special education students practiced yoga, helped by Stoneman Douglas volunteers. A skater zipped past. Elementary kids noisily played soccer.
“How many did he kill? After hours of no sleep, my eyes slip shut, as I still weep, there is a feeling in my gut, I wake up screaming, the memories haunt my head” — Brianna Jesionowski in her poem, “First Night.”
Jesionowski’s English class was ending when shots rang out just outside on the first floor of the three-story freshman building. The gunman fired down the hallway with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and through windows into classrooms, but not hers. He then climbed the stairs, killing as he went.
But Jesionowski and her classmates didn’t know it was real. There had been rumors that the school would hold an active-shooter drill with blank guns and drama students portraying victims.
“We thought it was weird — we had never been through anything like this,” she said. Even after police evacuated her class and she exited through a blood-filled hallway, she said her mind wouldn’t accept the reality until she met her older sister, Kaitlyn, whose hands were bloody from comforting a girl as she died.
She began writing poems before she asked to contribute to the book — it’s how she copes. Several are featured.
“I had so many different feelings. I was confused. My sister gave me good advice to write it down and sort through it,” she said.
The letter writer
“My name is Leni Steinhardt and I am a survivor of a school shooting. That is a sentence no sixteen-year-old should have to write” — Leni Steinhardt in her essay, “Dear Senator Marco Rubio.”
The letter, which Steinhardt also sent Congress members, details the terror she felt as she called her parents to say she loved them in case she never got another chance. How her brother lost a friend. It asks a pointed question: “What are you and the rest of the government doing to prevent this from happening again?”
“It was important that he heard it from me because I was angered after the shooting,” Steinhardt said. “I really didn’t have anyone to go to after this. My parents never lived through a shooting. My grandparents didn’t know. There really wasn’t anyone in my life who could answer these questions.”
She said Rubio responded, agreeing changes are needed but gave no specifics.
The photo shows three girls hugging tight in a Stoneman Douglas walkway, their eyes closed. Are they frightened? Mourning? No. Brianna Fisher took the photo long before the shooting on a first day of school of friends happy to see each other. She posted it on Instagram shortly after the shooting to show what school should be, not what it had become.
For her, the book represents what her schoolmates experienced — and she and the other contributors have a major responsibility.
“Not every student is going to be speaking to the press or writing something — it needs to be an accurate presentation,” Fisher said.
For Lerner, like everyone, it had been a normal day. In her classroom across from the freshman building, she’d quizzed students on George Orwell’s book “1984,” dropping chocolate kisses on their desks so they wouldn’t think her a “total monster” for interrupting their Valentine’s Day. She posted a selfie of the red leggings she wore for the occasion. During the shooting, she and some students huddled until SWAT officers found them and led them away.
She said the book has helped her and the students heal.
“We went through this together and we are going to get through this together,” she said.