I was 15 years old. It was my first year on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas yearbook staff. I spent my summers at yearbook camp and my weekends at journalism workshops. I’d spend my time at events, writing articles, conducting interviews and working with my fellow classmates on our award-winning yearbook. I loved what I did, and I considered myself pretty good at it.
Then on Feb 14, 2018, I became part of the story. I was part of the news.
News trucks lined the streets for the next few months with their cameras and microphones armed to capture any tears, anger or statements from us — the “survivors.” Their invasive and triggering questions filled my classmates and I with fear and anxiety. I felt like I was in a fishbowl, and they wouldn’t stop tapping on the glass and staring, waiting for any reaction they could get out of me.
Every morning at 7 a.m., I stood outside of the familiar burgundy gates struggling to muster up the courage to walk back into the place that held those painful memories. This was made more difficult by the swarms of journalists standing outside of the gates asking “Did you know anyone who died?” “Where were you that day?” “How do you feel being back here?”
After dealing with that, my view of journalists was tainted. The way they treated us traumatized me all over again and made me lose any interest I had in being a journalist. But for the next two and a half years of my high school career, I stayed on the yearbook staff and made sure to treat everyone I talked to with empathy and respect.
We had to rethink the entire 2018 yearbook in a month. Thirty-seven of us were relocated to the newspaper room’s walk-in-closet-sized computer lab.
We chose our yearbook’s theme the year before, and it perfectly encaptured the rest of the year and what we stood for as a staff, as a school, and as a community. We called it “As One.” As one staff, we sat in that cramped room and produced a 452-page book that encompassed love. As one school, we came together to cope, heal and advocate for change.
We decided the shooting would not overtake our book. It was important to us to preserve the memories that came before that day, the normal parts of high school life: Homecoming. Football games. Band practice.
We’d have two Valentine’s Day spreads; One with the photos our photographers took that morning of candy and balloons, and one that discussed the tragic events of that day. We didn’t want any photos of tears in the yearbook, there were enough of those in the media.
At 15, my yearbook coverage shifted from covering pep rallies to writing obituaries.
We knew that it was up to us to memorialize 17 people we lost in our yearbook. We had 17 profiles that spoke about their lives, not their death. We spoke to their family, friends, classmates, and significant others, and made sure to do so with courtesy about what they were going through. We had two rules: get it right and respect our sources.
The following year, I became the profiles editor myself and kept that position until my senior year when I graduated during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was proud of my work on the yearbook staff, but I knew my time as a “student journalist” was over. Once I experienced life in the fishbowl, I didn’t want to be the one tapping the glass.
So I went to UCF to study advertising. But the journalism bug stayed a part of me. I joined a writing organization and a magazine staff, and I was enjoying them much more than my classes.
I loved being creative, being a part of a staff, writing and finding stories. The world of journalism felt safe to me, and I started realizing there was more than met the eye. I watched a friend of mine, a journalism student, and I could see myself doing everything she was doing.
So I gave it a chance.
I took my first journalism classes, Principles of Journalism and News Reporting with Senior Instructor Rick Brunson. He taught us the ways to be ethical as journalists. He taught that we as journalists can change the narrative for other journalists. We can be the good ones, the ones with empathy and respect. The ones that handle trauma with mindfulness.
And I fell in love with journalism all over again.
I now know that journalists have the power to be a positive force in the world and to create legacies. I know I will be a journalist who values someone’s feelings over getting the story first. And I’ll spend my time in the world of journalism educating others on how to talk to victims of trauma and to be respectful in crisis situations.