On February 14th, 2018 in Parkland, Florida Nikolas Cruz brought an AR-15 assault rifle to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed seventeen people. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has accepted $3.3 million dollars in donations from the National Rifle Association (NRA), offered his constituents “thoughts and prayers” in wake of the shooting.
As an American student, this copy-paste response to tragedy struck me as insensitive, because our representatives truly do not understand.
None of our representatives know what it’s like to be in first grade in Orlando: You’re turning in your homework packets you did while watching Arthur on TV and you hear the announcement: “Lockdown in effect”. Your teacher stays composed as she tells you to shuffle into the corners and away from the windows – under the desks where they can’t see you. She closes the curtains, locks the doors, and turns off the lights. You’re still a little afraid of the dark. Sometimes, at home, when the hallways are dark and the light switch is far away, you call out to your mom until you reach it; a periodic reassurance that you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe. With your younger sibling, who can only count to seventeen: you do it in your head while they speak aloud. You shush them – it’ll be fine. But mom is forty five minutes away working. So when the custodian comes to check whether the door is locked or not and shakes the handle so hard you can hear the door hit the metal frame, you struggle to keep quiet. You’re an obedient child; you love to follow rules. You like pleasing the teacher and your peers and your parents. Now, when you have to pretend not to exist as the looming figure’s shadow covers the curtain on the door window, you can’t count to seventeen until it’s over, you can’t call your mom. You can’t make a sound. They will find you.
In first grade you’re scared. In fifth grade you’re a little scared too, because last summer your school had a little break-in. Nothing to worry about, they tell you. But suddenly you become more aware of the metal detectors at the entrance and the teachers standing by the front door making rapid eye contact and greeting you good morning as you come in, checking if you belong here; if you’re armed, if we’re safe. You remember, in third grade, when you of all people – who would rather do reading corner than play during recess, who spent free time drafting a first novel (it was awful) – went to the principal’s office for having your fingers shaped like guns and pointing them at the lunch table. “Were you serious?,” they ask, “Did you want to hurt people?” No, of course not. The teacher who found you – she never knew, let alone taught you – would struggle to make eye contact for a long time. You always felt uncomfortable around the principal. Did she still think about it? How hard did I have to work to prove that I was not a school shooter?
You remember wanting to bring your cool Swiss Army knife to school. You and your neighbors used it when you made arrows and bows and wands that summer when trying to film a Lord of the Rings knock off. You were the only girl, so you played all of the girl roles in your ruffled skirt and magenta blouse set – the coolest outfit in your closet after your fuzzy purple hoodie. Your dad says you shouldn’t take it. He hesitates when he says, “Maybe this won’t be the most appropriate thing for show-and-tell.” It is an entire toolkit smaller than your palm. Without him making the link you realize – it is also a weapon. You’re brown already, you can’t be dangerous on top of that. You can’t remember what you brought to show-and-tell.
It’s scary in ninth grade, when after three years of being away from the States you forget what the sound of a door hitting the metal frame sounds like. It’s just Kevin. It’s just Kevin. He and Mr. Cross were joking together yesterday at lunch. It might be Kevin. You can’t see through the frosted glass. It’s over soon enough.
You remember Sandy Hook, almost two years ago. You weren’t home – in America – for it but you remember Obama crying, and kids your baby cousin’s age, being murdered. You’ve grown up in a post-Columbine world, where it feels like there is a shooting every month – if not more. We’ve had eight this year. It’s not scary in tenth grade or eleventh grade nor in senior year.
By the time you’re nineteen and in college a continent away, you’ve heard about more shootings than you can count or remember off the top of your head. You’re eating breakfast and drinking coffee in your monkey-patterned pajamas while listening to National Public Radio on your phone. You’re giving unfair commentary to Steve Inskeep when he relays that the insensitive “thoughts and prayers” is being spewed at survivors by politicians instead of the promise of change and solutions. And then they talk about how old the shooter was and how old the victims were and you think for the first time since Sandy Hook: a man has killed children; babies. This is the first time since Sandy Hook that you remember so distinctly being older than these victims.
You snap back into frustration soon enough – they play a sound clip where the President talks about mental health and fortifying mental health services to prevent these tragedies. Suddenly you’re mad. NPR, being the best, ends their segment with the fact that those with mental health issues are far more likely to be the victims rather than perpetrators of violence. This is why you and so many like you were afraid to reach out when you really needed it. Would they see you as unhinged? Or, even worse, threatening? A depressed brown girl is always more concerning than a precocious student. You cannot go back to being that little kid in the principal’s office. You have it together.
Though, now you’re an ocean away and safe and not judged, all you can think of is what that kid told Rubio. You want to shake your phone and scream it at Congress. You don’t understand.
You don’t understand that I grew up in a world where gun violence is an ever-present reality. Where we always thought, ”this could be us- this could have been us.” I don’t, and hope I never will, understand what it is like to survive a shooting. However, unlike Senator Rubio, I have grown up terrified of them.
This was my status quo: fear. Not the unfounded fear of monsters under my bed. No, the fear of being shot and killed in some fatalistic gamble.
These kids and adults were killed before they could before they could do any of the things they wanted to – lead the lives they were entitled to. And they were killed by guns. Guns are killing people. Mental illness is not the weapon – guns are. You are helping neither those suffering with mental illness nor gun violence by blaming it on this false and unfounded cause.
You are killing children by absolving guns.
This is how I grew up. This was an indelible part of my childhood – and I refuse to let my children live in fear.
Maya and her brother on the way to school
Maya Shenoy as a child
Maya Shenoy is a first year student in the Sciences Po and Columbia University dual degree based in Le Havre. She was born in Florida and raised in Delaware.
Edited by Paxia Ksatryo and Alex Kloß