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 would never be about Friday night football and innocent first kisses.
Seventeen students and staff were killed in the 2018 Valentine's Day shooting. As the Parkland students struggled to define high school apart from tragedy, their senior year has been punctuated by the coronavirus pandemic, upending their lives once again.
The majority are isolated at home on a computer, their hard-fought normal routines altered and their support systems splintered.
The shooting catapulted some students into the spotlight as they rallied for gun control and landed on the cover of Time magazine. But that was just a sliver of the experience of those in this largely affluent, palm-tree studded suburb. In the shadows, many struggle at times to manage daily life.
Their only full year at Stoneman Douglas was as sophomores - a time tinged with triggers from fire alarms and fireworks. Many students felt retraumatized every time they walked by the now 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 inseparable like 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."
Price'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 also a sense that her life was no longer just her own, that she'd be creating new memories and chasing her dreams for Alyssa — for both of them.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing Price into virtual school and making it difficult to connect with the friends she'd finally made.
"I started to lose myself again,” Price said.
Like millions of students across the country, proms and pep rallies were forgotten in the wake of the pandemic, depriving Price and the Parkland seniors yet again of traditional rites of passage and a normal high school experience.
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 while texting “I love you” to his parents, has found healing in activism. He joined the student-led March For Our Lives, registered first-time voters in various states and now works on gun-reform policy. He sounds assured and self-confident in his passion for enacting change, but it's been a process.
“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 coped 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.”
Barrack 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, but she still long for her senior-year traditions.
“Even if I’m not best friends with those people, it’s an experience," said Barrack, who instead 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 17-year-old Siccone, who avoids malls, movie theaters and other public places. Sometimes 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 are finding the balance between mourning a 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,” 18-year-old Servaites said. “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.”
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.”