“You’re Never The Same After Someone Threatens Your life”

Profound sadness over students who live in fear
Illustration by John Russo

Sometimes I get anxious. My pulse quickens when I hear the slam of lockers, the squeak of tennis shoes or the sound of a school bell.

When I walked into Lincoln High School one recent afternoon, I immediately felt it.

I was there to photograph a teacher who had won a national award. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the exits.

When I stood on a chair to take a group photo, I didn’t feel unstable; I felt sad.

Looking through the lens of the camera, I thought how easily they could lose their innocence. They could lose it in a snap.

I remembered a similarly hot afternoon on the first day of my senior year at Freedom High School in Tampa.

Just as they did at Lincoln, students roamed the halls and waved to friends and teachers, and they groaned about their teen woes.

But I remembered one significant difference: Our school was filled with police officers, who patrolled every entrance.

My classmates seemed to go about their day as if the cops were invisible.

They weren’t invisible to me. Their black uniforms were as striking as ever.

They were there because just a few days prior, Jared Cano, a former student at our school, was found in his suburban home with explosives intended for my high school.

His plan included bombing the cafeteria and then to “pick off bomb survivors” with a gun.

We showed up that day with the intent to learn, but Cano had another lesson in mind.

According to a note he kept in his phone, he was “destined to teach a lesson with bloodshed.”

I can’t seem to unhear the words my best friend spoke that day when we approached our cafeteria for lunch.

“What if he had an accomplice?” I remember her whispering to me. “What if it isn’t safe?”

I don’t recall how I responded, but I do remember we sat outside.

I wasn’t just anxious. I was angry. I was angry that someone had ripped me from my bubble of innocence.

I now had to think about pipe bombs instead of prom.

I was angry about a system that would let clear indicators of abuse, violence and anger from a teen go unremedied.

The system failed Jared Cano. The system failed Eric David Harris, Dylan Bennet Klebold and Adam Lanza.

Most sadly and significantly, the system failed its students.

It failed to keep them innocent, and for too many students of Columbine and Sandy Hook, it failed to save their lives.

It failed me — and then it failed me again.

Two years later I found myself crouched with my roommates in my Florida State University dorm calling my mom to let her know that I wasn’t in the library where a shooting was currently taking place.

My anxiety had never been higher. 
I read the tweets of a friend trapped in the library writing goodbye notes. I called my roommate and got no answer.

She spent every night in the library. I heard sirens and then gunshots. My other roommates and I huddled closer and cried.

Four years later, I sat at my work desk, and my pulse quickened as texts one after another appeared on my phone.

“Did you hear about MSD?” they all read, referring to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

I hadn’t. I googled MSD, only to see “17 killed in Florida high school shooting, one of the deadliest in history” appear on my screen.

But as I settled into my work chair to read the articles flooding my timelines, my pulse settled. I wasn’t nervous nor was I looking for an exit.

I didn’t worry if I would be safe going to work the next day. I wasn’t worried, because I was no longer in school.

Instead, I felt profound sadness, the same sadness I felt at Lincoln High School on that recent day.

Teens just want to be teens. They shouldn’t worry where the nearest exit is.

But too many do. As a society, we allow these children to go to school knowing there’s a chance they won’t come home — or will come home forever changed.

Nearly 40 percent of children exposed to a shooting will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the California-based Giffords Law Center.

We can’t go on this way, and maybe — just maybe — we won’t.

Despite opposition, young people are actively paving a way for an open conversation about our rights and our lives.

In the two-and-a-half months after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, young voters made up 34.22 percent of all new voter registrations in Florida, according to a report in the Miami Herald.

They’re speaking out about common sense. Few people want to take away anybody’s guns.

But many of us wonder about the types of guns used in many of these mass shootings.

We wonder about their easy availability and about the troubled people who get access to them.

This isn’t just chatter. The numbers show we can make a difference.

We have the power to save the next generation of children.

I believe you have a right to bear arms, but I also believe teenagers have a right to live freely without fear.

Take it from me: You’re never the same after someone threatens your life.

You can’t regain innocence after it has been stolen.

I hoped that those teens at Lincoln didn’t see the world as grimly as I did.

I wanted to talk to them about it.

Instead, I just took their picture and smiled. Let them be innocent a day longer.


Janecia Britt is digital editor at Rowland Publishing, owner of Tallahassee Magazine.

Categories: Education