How the Parkland Shooting Changed My Life

A Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher reflects on the past year.

Sarah Lerner (right), an English and journalism teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, discusses her book, "Parkland Speaks," with three students. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

It is a very odd thing to think of myself as a school-shooting survivor. The first time I acknowledged that I was a survivor was on October 5, 2018, when I attended an event as a guest of Everytown for Gun Safety. I went over to the Moms Demand Action table to sign up to be a volunteer. As I filled out the form, I stared at the question asking how I was connected to gun violence. I stood there for what felt like an hour. Finally I checked the box to indicate that I was a survivor of gun violence. I had never thought of it that way before.

I wasn’t in Building 12. I didn’t see anyone get shot. I never saw the shooter. I didn’t think of myself as a survivor. When I said that to my husband, he told me that I absolutely was. I was on campus that day. I heard the shots when I got outside after the fire alarm went off. I returned to my classroom, where I kept 15 students safe in my classroom for two and a half to three hours, until the SWAT team entered my room. I might not have seen anything, but I was there and didn’t know whether I’d be next.

I remember the day vividly. It’s the hours, days, and weeks following that are a blur. I went to school the morning of February 14, 2018, to give a quiz to my senior English classes. I joked that I was ruining their Valentine’s Day by giving them the quiz. To make them smile, I put Hershey’s Kisses on their desks. Later that day, 20 minutes before school ended, my world changed forever. I left school shattered, broken, lost.

On February 15, I did a 12-hour media marathon, appearing on TV stations across the country. It was surreal to stand across the street from my school and talk about an event that had happened less than 24 hours before. In the afternoon, I attended a vigil at Pine Trails Park, a mile north of the school. I saw students who I had seen only the day before, but it felt like a lifetime ago.

On February 16, I attended the funeral for Meadow Pollack, whom I had as a freshman in my English class. That was the first time I cried since leaving the school two days earlier.

On February 17, I met with my yearbook staff. I told them how much I loved them, and how glad I was that they were safe. Several members of the staff not only were in Building 12, but were in the classrooms the shooter turned his gun on. They watched their friends and classmates die. They were injured. If the shooting had happened one day later, it would have taken place during yearbook class. I couldn’t wrap my head around how many of them could have been traveling around the building getting quotes, or taking pictures. The thought that I could have lost anyone was too much to take. I began to cry. They cried too.

On February 18, I attended the funeral for Jaime Guttenberg, who was in my Journalism 1 class that year.

After that, I don’t know what I did most days. I just know that I tried to keep myself busy.

On February 23, I went back to school for the first time. I entered my classroom, and it looked like a freeze frame of the moment before the shooting, like time had stood still. The date February 14 was still on the board; the quizzes were still on the desks; students’ phones were still plugged in; the computers were still on. I began to have an anxiety attack and couldn’t breathe. I had to get out of there. I was in the room for a total of five minutes.

When school resumed on February 28, I hugged each one of my students. I told them that I would always be there for them. Within the next few weeks, my students started opening up about what they had experienced. I never prompted them. I always listened. It broke my heart that these things had happened at all, but especially to children—because that’s what they are.

In the months that followed, we put together a yearbook like no other; one that was perfect, that honored the victims. We added pages for profiles of those we had lost, and yet more pages to cover what happened that day and in the weeks after. I edited and published a book, Parkland Speaks, that features Parkland students’ writing about that day. I have worked hard to take care of myself. I see a psychologist weekly. I also spent much of 2018 planning my son’s bar mitzvah, which was last month. That would have stressed me out in a different period of my life, but it  turned out to be a nice diversion from the stress and pain that permeated every other second. It was nice to make sure he felt special and to not focus so much on myself. Perhaps this was my way of putting off the feelings I knew I’d have as February 14 drew close again, but I was okay with that.

Moving forward, I plan to take things one day at a time. That’s really all I can do. I’m a survivor, after all.