(CNN) – They both fidget as they talk, as any teenager would when questioned in front of multiple cameras. A joke about her imperfect manicure. The other adjusts her necklace that says “Misery.”“Prom is my birthday,” says Lauren Hogg. I think it’s going to be great. On my 18th birthday, what fun! ” Again… how any teenager would act.
But then, when they are asked to tell about what is probably the hardest thing to talk about, their concern stops.
“I was in the 1200 building, which is where the shooting happened,” says Brooke Harrison. And Alaina, Alyssa and Alex died in my classroom and eight people in total were shot in my classroom. Everyone around me, where I decided to try to hide, was shot or killed.
That was the moment when their lives changed forever. The day they became two of the youngest survivors of one of the worst school shootings in American history.
Hogg and Harrison were freshmen at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018 when a former student perpetrated the massacre that left 17 dead. That was three years ago. Now, this Tuesday, these young survivors graduate.
“Really only the first semester of my freshman year was normal, and then the rest just was what it was,” says Harrison. “The second year was probably the worst for me, in terms of mental health, because I was still recovering from everything I witnessed, being in the building.”
That was the year Hogg and his family decided they had to leave Parkland. They moved to Washington, a change that she describes as something that saved her, but did not lessen her pain.
“So much has happened that it seems I have been living in dog years. It feels like I’ve been in high school for 20 years, and I tell people all the time when they ask me how I feel about graduating, ”says Hogg.
In those years, Hogg, Harrison, and an army of their classmates, including David Hogg, Lauren’s older brother, who became known as an activist in the wake of the shootings, turned that trauma into action, becoming outspoken activists. against gun violence, going from the Florida State Capitol to the halls of Congress to try to bring about change and starting what has become a worldwide movement with March For Our Lives, a student-led movement focused on prevention of armed violence. But they have faced one of America’s most intricate political struggles, and three years later, their frustration is palpable.
“For the two years after the shooting, I thought the reason these things kept happening was that they just needed to hear one more story. Politicians just need to hear one more voice, ”says Hogg. And so, as a child, I tried to do it. And then I got older and worked more and I realized that it’s not that they don’t know what to do: they decide not to do it.
These teenagers carry a wisdom and a seriousness that they have not chosen. They have grown weary of politicians and empty excuses, and bristle at what they hear as empty flattery from adults.
“I think it’s a bit insulting when they say, ‘You’re an old soul.’ Yes, I am an old soul because of the amount of trauma caused by your inaction, ”says Hogg.
“It’s the same when people say, ‘Oh, you’re here for a reason.’ I know they mean it well, but it also feels uncomfortable, ”says Harrison. “It feels like they say I’m here for a reason and (those who died) aren’t. And I say: ‘No, because they deserve to be here too. They deserve to have their graduation. ‘
They made it
His time in high school was marked by tragedy, beginning with the mass shooting and ending with the disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. Jeff Foster has witnessed it. He has taught the subject of government at Douglas Preparatory School for years. He also experienced the shooting with these boys and has seen them overcome the storm.
“It is almost unimaginable to think how they have survived these four years,” he says as he stands by the fence of the school.
Imagine going to eight semesters of high school and having a normal high school semester in quotes. Everything else was marked by some kind of event or trauma or disorder. ‘
Foster is proud when he talks about this class of seniors. Proud that they simply “did it.” The word that comes to mind the most when you think of these unique students: “Resilience.”
The pandemic presented a different level of challenges and upheavals in their lives. Both Hogg and Harrison spent most of their senior year learning from home and, like students across the country, faced harsh disappointment with the cancellation of welcome meetings, college visits, and , in general, of adolescent life.
“I didn’t get the typical high school senior experience,” says Hogg, half joking. “It has been horrible … with everything that is happening in the world our trauma has worsened.”
But, in a strange way, the pandemic also brought some comfort. Harrison says they were finally not alone in their isolation.
“I definitely feel like I became a lot more isolated, but I also felt strangely less lonely, because almost every high school in the country felt exactly the same as me,” she admits. “In my other years, with everything that happened in my institute, it seemed that we were the only ones.”
Covid-19 also brought strange comfort to Denise Harrison, Brooke’s mother. “The strange thing about this last year and a half of covid is that it has been in my house the whole time. So that’s actually been really good for me, ”he says. “As much as he has missed so much, he has been home safely.”
Now, these seniors say, they can’t wait to leave their high school years behind. Hogg offers this sage advice to his 14-year-old freshman self: “Hang on. As simple as that. Hold. Because it’s wild, and that’s the only thing you can do when you have no control.
As a budding artist, he talks about college as a “blank canvas” and hopes that it will finally mean an opportunity to paint his own narrative and write his own story.
Harrison speaks of this moment in much the same way. “It’s like closing a chapter in my life and moving on to a better one,” he says.
For Denise, graduation is bittersweet. A smile escapes her when she talks about the opportunities her daughter now has ahead of her. “You really have become an amazing person,” she tells her daughter as they hold hands.
But then Denise realizes what this and all the milestones mean to the nine Parkland families who should have children who graduate this week, but don’t. “That these other families … that their children were taken from them,” she says through tears. «They will not be able to see their children grow up. All of them should have been able to graduate and go to college and have their first love and, you know, all the milestones. So it’s hard.
It is hard like many moments in the lives of these young women, but even so, they look forward.
Brooke Harrison hopes to study journalism when she starts college in the fall. “It feels like an opportunity to have an almost normal school experience,” he says.
As Lauren Hogg looks ahead, she keeps an eye on the past.
“I think that reflection is necessary to move forward, because I think that if I went ahead without reflecting on all the work that I have done, all the things that I have gone through, it would be wasting all those experiences. And I can’t allow that to happen.
–Meridith Edwards and Davide Cannaviccio contributed to this report.