Never again

The Comments section of the March 1 issue of the New York Teacher was turned over to Jessica Stillman, a UFT member and Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS alumna, class of 1999:

Jessica Stillman (right) poses with her mother at her graduation from Stoneman DJessica Stillman (right) poses with her mother at her graduation from Stoneman Douglas HS in 1999.

On Feb. 14, I received a text from my mother in Parkland, Florida: “Douglas is in lockdown. They are saying there is an active shooter.” As an alum of Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS, this text definitely came as a shock, but I brushed it off because, you know, “not in my high school; not in my town.” You see, my hometown, Parkland, is a one-street town; an equestrian community with sprawling landscapes and beautiful statues in the middle of each roundabout. It is not the scene of a national crisis.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas is still the most beautiful school building I have ever seen. It has an open courtyard in the center where students can eat lunch and be with friends. I spent most of my high school years practicing drama performances in that courtyard. On Feb. 14, I stayed up all night watching the news, seeing glimpses of that courtyard as SWAT teams searched the grounds — the memories of my school streaming back with each clip of students escaping from the classrooms.

Learning the names and seeing the faces of the victims is the most difficult part of any school shooting, but this time the victims were wearing my alma mater’s mascot and name on their clothes. It was emotional. Throughout the next day, as I looked out at my own curious, full-of-life freshman students, it became known that many of the 17 Douglas victims were also freshmen. Their own teachers, less than 24 hours before, looked out at them, joked with them, educated them.

I was a senior at Stoneman Douglas during the Columbine massacre. I remember my Douglas community celebrating the lives that were lost, and I remember the assemblies about being kind to each other. Years later, I sat in a teacher’s lounge with my co-teacher watching the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School unfold. We cried for the young victims and for the teachers lost. We spoke to our students about being kind to each other. We watched as the politicians were outraged, but failed to act. Our school enacted the code red, yellow, green protocols, and we practiced for a time that we hoped would never come.

There was something different that happened after the Parkland shooting. The survivors did not accept just the “thoughts and prayers” offered to them. On Feb. 17, the courageous Emma Gonzalez, Stoneman Douglas class of 2018, made a speech that was a triumphant call to action — a call to end the cycle of outrage and then acceptance that generally comes along with mass shootings. In only a week, Emma and the other survivors brought politicians to heel and forced companies to pull out of partnerships with the National Rifle Association. I feel such a swell of pride because I walked the same halls that Emma does now, and because these are the critical-thinking and argumentation skills we teach in our classes every day to youth just like Emma. I see my past, present and future in students like Emma.

I am asking my fellow UFT members to encourage and elevate this renewed sense of activism our students feel. This may be the most important lesson of their lives. Let’s see each school represented at the March for our Lives on March 24, whether it be in New York City or Washington, D.C. Let’s see letter-writing campaigns and voter registration campaigns in every school. Let’s let the students lead the way, as we fight by their side against gun violence.

Whenever people ask me where I’m from, I used to say “40 minutes north of Fort Lauderdale” or simply “South Florida.” Nobody knew Parkland. Nobody is supposed to know Parkland. Now everybody knows it. Parkland, Columbine and Newtown are household names now. Let’s fight to make sure that another name is never added to this list. Never Again.

Jessica Stillman, Townsend Harris HS, Queens

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