A young activist’s advice
- Some people say, ‘I don’t pay attention to politics.’ Others don’t have a choice
Oct 12, 2018-
I don’t remember exactly when I found out Carmen Schentrup was dead. Carmen and I became friends in middle school. We had science together. I got my period one day and didn’t have a pad, and Carmen gave me one—what a queen. We rode the bus together every day after school. She would vent about her a cappella club, and we would compare the TV shows we were watching. At her birthday parties everyone would eat pizza and watch a movie in the Schentrups’ living room, and then after the movie we would all just talk—about school, politics, life. I still have one of her party invitations taped up on my mirror.
I found out she was dead on Feb. 15. I think it was the 15th—that’s when The Miami Herald released the names of those who had been killed the day before in the shooting at my high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in Parkland, Fla. I’d thought she’d only been injured. I remember thinking that very clearly; she has only been injured, don’t worry about her.
On the 16th, I was asked to speak at a gun control rally by a woman on the school board. For what seemed like the first time, adults were treating me and my peers as though they cared about what we had to say. I started writing my speech and didn’t stop until I got up to the lectern. I gave it my all. All of my words, my thoughts, my energy, every political fact I knew. My mom had “Rachel Maddow” on the TV and was saying: “Pay attention to this! It’s about Chuck Grassley! You should consider putting it in your speech!” and I did. The speech followed a pattern: I had a thought, I wrote a new paragraph, I filled in the gaps, I ranted, and then deleted the rants. I had waves where all I wrote was a kind of scream of consciousness: “How could this have happened? So many people died, so many people died. I can’t do this. How do I do this? How do we do this?”
My friend Cameron Kasky called after I gave my speech and asked if I wanted to join the movement. He was getting a group of students together to organize what we ended up calling the March for Our Lives—a march on Washington to call for better gun laws.
We worked out of Cameron’s house in the early days. A lot of my friends outside the movement were having trouble sleeping. Even those who weren’t on campus the day of the shooting had nightmares. But for those of us in the movement, there wasn’t time to sleep. You can see very clearly in those early interviews that all of us had deep dark circles under our eyes. No one had an appetite. No one wanted to leave Cameron’s house, not even to take a shower. None of us wanted to stop working. To stop working was to start thinking. And thinking about anything other than the march and the solutions to gun violence was to have a breakdown.
One day all of us seemed to have a breakdown around 4 p.m. Cameron ran off, and I ran after him, because I was worried. Once I saw that he was O.K., I realized that I was having a breakdown, too.
I lay in the grass. The sky was spotted with clouds, so when they passed over the sun, it felt too cool, and when the sun was out, it felt too warm. There were trees all around, and I was fully realizing, once more, how miserable we all were. How miserable I felt. How much I wished I could just be a tree so that I didn’t have to know people who had been murdered in a mass shooting in a life I thought would be forever safe from this kind of mourning.
Suddenly I couldn’t stand being alive. I didn’t want to kill myself—let me make that very clear. I just didn’t want to have a human consciousness. Trees face many difficulties, what with deforestation and pollution, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be one—to just stop feeling and live.
I wanted to go back to when blood hadn’t stained the walls of our campus. Back to when I would hang out with Carmen on the bus. Back to before people would stop me to say, “Aren’t you one of those kids from Parkland?”
But we couldn’t go back. All of us know what it feels like to be Harry Potter now. Even when people come up to us quietly to say thank you, you never know if they’re just trying to shoot you at close range.
Going up against the country’s largest gun lobby organization was obviously something that needed to be done, but it means that the people we’re arguing against are the ones with the guns. I am personally deathly afraid of them, and I
know, from traveling the country during the summer for the Road to Change tour, that many of the people who disagree with us mean it when they say that they only want to talk if we’re standing on the other end of their AR-15s.
In the midst of all this, I try to take good care of myself. I shaved my head a week or two before senior year. People used to ask me why, and the main reason is that having hair felt terrible. It was heavy, it made me overheated, and every time I put it up in a ponytail (and I looked terrible in a ponytail) it gave me a headache. And, it sounds stupid, but it made me insecure; I was always worried that it looked frizzy or tangled. What’s the best thing to do with an insecurity? Get rid of it. It’s liberating to shave my head every week.
I also cry a lot. But crying is healthy and it feels good—I really don’t know why people are so against it. Maybe because it’s loud. Crying is a kind of communication, and communication is awesome. The lack of communication is what keeps us in this situation.
People say, “I don’t play the politics game, I don’t pay attention to politics”—well, the environment is getting poisoned, families are getting pulled apart and deported, prisons are privatized, real-life Nazis live happily among us, Native Americans are so disenfranchised our country is basically still colonizing them, Puerto Rico has been abandoned, the American education system has been turned into a business, and every day 96 people get shot and killed.
You might not be a big fan of politics, but you can still participate. All you need to do is vote for people you believe will work on these issues, and if they don’t work the way they should, then it is your responsibility to call them, organize a town hall and demand that they show up—hold them accountable. It’s their job to make our world better.
It has been months since the shooting. But whenever one of my friends finds an old picture of someone who died that day, or another shooting happens, or I hear helicopters or one too many loud bangs in one day, it all starts to slip. It feels like I’m back at the vigil, in the hot Florida sun, with volunteers handing out water bottles to replenish what the sun and sadness had taken away. Looking for friends and finding them, hugging them, saying, “I love you.” Looking for friends and not finding them.
Everything we’ve done and everything we will do is for them. It’s for ourselves. It’s for every person who has gone through anything similar to this, for every person who hasn’t yet, for every person who never will. This isn’t something we are ever going to forget about. This isn’t something we are ever going to give up on.
—©2018 The New York Times
Published: 12-10-2018 08:13