Parkland tries to build unity after tragedy
PARKLAND, Fla. — Six weeks after the tragedy that changed everything here, the sprawling, makeshift memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had to come down.
The toys and teddy bears had been bleached by the Florida sun. Notes and cards were in tatters. Most of the flowers — bushels of them, piled everywhere — were brown and dead.
And so on a warm, windy Wednesday in the middle of the school’s spring break, teachers, students, alumni, and other volunteers sifted through what had been lovingly left behind, photographing and boxing up everything that could be saved.
Anchored by 17 crosses and Stars of David, each adorned with a victim’s name, this place had become a refuge of sorts.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Matt Deitsch, a 2016 graduate of Stoneman Douglas, whose younger brother Ryan is a senior. “That’s really been our safe space.”
In Parkland, the careful dismantling of the memorial felt like the physical manifestation of the many impossible questions this community now faces.
How can something so terrible give rise to something so beautiful? How can a community preserve the good that grows from so much sorrow? And even as the remarkable national movement that a group of teenage shooting survivors built barrels into the future, can Parkland hold itself together?
“I was worried at the very beginning,” said Sharon Cutler, a Stoneman Douglas finance teacher whose husband is a Parkland city commissioner. “I’m less worried now.”
Remarkably, and perhaps uniquely, Parkland has also become synonymous not just with the Valentine’s Day shooting that took the lives of 14 students and three teachers, but also with the antiviolence cause that its children have spawned in the weeks since. And now, in a way we have not seen before, the unfathomable grief over what has been lost is living side by side with tremendous pride in what has happened since.
“They’re effectively maintaining our community, and keeping it together,” said Ken Cutler, a city commissioner, and Sharon’s husband.
Holding so much pain and so much pride in your heart at the same time would be difficult anywhere; under the microscope of international attention, it is extraordinary.
“I think a lot of people have really come together through this. That’s very American,” said Deitsch, who moved away for college a year and half ago, but dropped everything after the shooting, returned home. and is in charge of messaging and outreach for the March for Our Lives group. “I hope that sense of unity and togetherness and resolve will never go away. Because I think a lot of people in this community are going to need that for a long time.”
Indeed, the wounds are still fresh, and that juxtaposition of grief and glory — of being known simultaneously for an act of ferocious gun violence and for spawning the most promising effort to end that violence we’ve ever seen — sometimes sit together uneasily.
“Some days, you wake up and say, ‘I’m going to go in there and teach,’ ” said Sharon Cutler. “Some days, you wake up and say, ‘How am I going to go in there and teach?’ ”
The names of little-noticed places like Columbine and Newtown almost immediately became shorthand for the terrible things that happened there and also for what didn’t happen after. No national resolve on assault weapons or on much of anything else. As time displaces the Parkland moment, the same thing may happen here.
But it doesn’t feel that way now.
Antonina Messina, a 17-year-old junior, said it feels inevitable that Parkland will forever be known for its worst moment. Messina baked cookies for her classmates on Valentine’s Day, only to find herself sprinting out of the classroom after she heard gunshots, leaping over a fence and running to Walmart. Three of her friends died, a fact that hits her off and on, in a way that doesn’t quite seem real.
“But we’re also being known for coming through this together,” said Messina. “And fighting for change.”
Identity — not just what a place is known for, but how it sees itself — can be a tricky thing to measure. And it’s important to note that “Parkland,” the place America and the world have come to know only in the weeks since the shooting, embraces more than the city of about 30,000, with its pristine parks and private golf courses hard against the Florida Everglades. Racially, socioeconomically, and ideologically, the student body is diverse, drawing students from nearby Coral Springs and other surrounding communities.
The rough line of demarcation between Parkland and Coral Springs, the Sawgrass Expressway, runs alongside the Stoneman Douglas campus, so that the school nearly straddles the city line. Only by this quirk of geography has the nation come to know one city as the site of a terrible tragedy while the other has remained largely anonymous.
Kyrah Simon, a 17-year-old junior from Coral Springs, said Parkland is a bit more well-to-do and somewhat whiter and more residential; Coral Springs is much larger and more diverse, its thoroughfares lined with businesses. But at school, and around town, it feels like one community.
There are, to be sure, ideological differences within that fused community as well. Some of the parents of those who died have taken different approaches, some lobbying for gun control and others seeking to make schools harder to attack. Simon expressed concern that some of the security measures being instituted at Stoneman Douglas in the wake of the shooting could do more harm than good.
“If they increase officers, we will be disproportionately affected by that,” Simon said, citing studies that have shown black students are more likely to be disciplined or arrested than white students.
But different viewpoints are not necessarily divisions, said Sandi Davis, a sociology teacher whose daughter is a freshman at Stoneman Douglas. One of the most potent and under acknowledged messages to emerge from Parkland is that people who disagree on how best to prevent gun violence can work in parallel.
“We’re here because we’re fighting for the same thing,” said Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, a 17-year-old Stoneman Douglas junior from Coconut Creek. She was one of several students of color who held a small rally at a park in Coral Springs on Wednesday. In less affluent, less white neighborhoods, children are being shot every day, she said — and the movement that grew from her school’s experience must be big enough to confront those problems, too.
“Together, our voices are stronger,” Ho-Shing said.
Outside the school on Wednesday, the memorial pile was getting smaller.
Blowing sand stung volunteers’ eyes. Teachers embraced and wept. Each new discovery — a stone with a dead child’s name painted on it; an unopened card burned by a candle’s flame — was another opportunity to grieve.
They sorted plastic dinosaurs and wooden giraffes and pairs of sneakers and enough teddy bears to fill every den in Florida. There were handwritten notes from friends and strange tirades from far away, strings of beads, and bizarre totems of mysterious significance.
Someone rescued a handful of two-dollar bills with notes scrawled on them and stuffed them in a dusty vase that once held flowers.
And the flowers! They sat in vast piles, brittle and brown after weeks in the sun. Some were trampled into the turf, so that everywhere you walked you stepped on darkened rose petals. “Organics,” someone in charge at the scene called them, stuffing armful after armful into heavy-gauge black trash bags. The organics couldn’t be saved; instead, they’ll be incinerated, their ashes mixed with soil and used around town to help new things grow.
Sifting through the knee-deep piles, Lisa Hitchcock found a greeting card with a hole burned through it; by a candle, probably.
Dismantling the vast memorial meant that everything had to be cataloged and filed away, so Hitchcock, a US history teacher, brushed dirt and ash off the card and read it: “To the family of Helena Ramsay.”
Before all this, Hitchcock had been one of Ramsay’s teachers, and Simon one of her friends.
She died, Simon said, a hero. A classmate who was shot but survived told NBC that Ramsay helped her hide behind some books — saving her friend’s life, but losing her own.
When the kids who had shared a class with Ramsay came back to school a few days after the shooting, Hitchcock had pushed all the desks back and invited the students to sit on the floor, so that the empty desk wouldn’t serve as a reminder of her absence.
The wind was still blowing, and black dirt was beginning to smear the volunteers’ faces.
Hitchcock paused, then put the unopened card in a box with Helena Ramsay’s name on it.
There were so many more pieces still to pick up.