It’s been two weeks since Amanda Messing hid under a chair in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas auditorium while 17 of her classmates and teachers throughout the building were shot dead. Since Feb. 14, as the community began to grieve, the high-school campus has filled up with memorial flowers and teenagers who survived the attack have commanded the national debate about gun violence. But today, students return to the scene of the crime to resume classes, and Parkland, Fl., attempts to find its new normal.
“I was so nervous to walk into the school,” Messing, a 17-year-old senior, told InStyle of the reorientation Stoneman Douglas High held for students and parents on Sunday. “But it really did help just to be there before going back [today]. I realized that everyone is feeling the same way that I do. I’m still nervous to see what it’ll be like to spend half the day there, but in the long run, it’ll be better than just sitting home and being anxious.” This week, an adjusted half-day schedule will begin to ease teens back into a routine.
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Messing is hopeful that the building will become a place of community and support, but she doesn't expect its hallways to ever feel "normal" again. “There will never be a time when I go to school without thinking about this,” she says. “It’s always going to be something that every student and teacher carries with them.”
It's a scene that Messing knows will haunt her: Just after lunch that Wednesday, she filtered into the school auditorium, where a substitute teacher was overseeing several classes. “At 2:00, we all walked over to the auditorium. At about 2:19, the fire alarm went off, which was weird because we’d already had an alarm earlier. Still, I didn’t think anything crazy had happened,” she remembers. After making her way outside to the parking lot, Messing was ushered back into the building chaotically. “When we got back to the auditorium, we were told to put our heads down, hide under the chairs, and silence our phones,” she says. “That’s when I realized that something really happened. And when the kid next to me turned on the news, it hit me that there was an actual shooter at my school.”
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She texted her family group chat “to say there was apparently a code red” and texted her best friend, Nina, who was safely hidden in the TV production classroom. The SWAT team arrived, lining the auditorium doors, which do not lock. Nervous murmurs about who was where, who’d reached whom, rippled throughout the room. Messing realized: Had the shooting happened a day later, she would have been sitting in one of the classrooms that was hit worst.
As Messing pieced together what was going on, scared and crouched on the auditorium floor, her parents hung on every text, waiting for minute-by-minute confirmations that their daughter was still alive. “We’re on code red.” “Apparently there’s a shooting.” “Idk what’s going on.” “The swat team just came in the auditorium.” “I’m scared.”
Messing’s mom, Vicki, was in disbelief. “I was driving home when I suddenly saw police cars racing towards the school,” she says. “I thought there must have been a car accident, but then Amanda texted saying that there was 'apparently a code red.' She used the word ‘apparently,’” Vicki recalls. “Once I started reading her texts, I went right back. By the time I got to the school, the SWAT team was there. I pulled over onto the corner, and my friends were all there, hysterically crying.”
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As she stood on the other side of her daughter's school's doors, minutes felt like hours. “I was in constant contact with Amanda,” Vicki says. “I knew the SWAT team was with her, so I was able to stay relatively calm. But one of my friends texted me that Meadow Pollack’s mom couldn’t get in touch with Meadow. That was the first inkling I had that it was more serious than I thought. Then I found out that another friend’s daughter was shot in the knee. I was standing in front of the school, texting with Amanda and waiting for her.”
An hour and a half later, the students were released from the auditorium. “While I was running away from campus, I saw a stretcher but tried not to look,” says Messing. “My mom was waiting on the corner, and I went right to her.”
But only once they’d left the crime scene did Messing and her mom begin to process what they’d witnessed. Then, the aftershock set in. “When we got home later and turned on the TV and I saw what actually happened—I don’t know how I was so calm,” Vicki says. “I think it was a blessing that I didn’t know what was happening at the time.” Their phones buzzed, as names of the survivors and the wounded arrived. “As time went on, I realized we weren’t going to find out where Meadow was.”
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“I never thought something like this could happen at my school,” Messing says. She’d known the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, from middle school, and knew of alleged past aggravations (“He used to pull the fire alarm and once threw a desk at a teacher”). Still, she says, “Parkland is so secluded and safe and quiet. Everyone knows each other. It’s so bizarre that this happened here.”
But that Parkland is gone. And that, in part, is why Messing says she's ready to go back to school—to surround herself with people who know and understand what she’s been through.
“I think she needs to go back in order to heal and move on,” says Vicki. “They’re the only ones who know how each other feels. She needs to be with her high school family.
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“Everyone in this town is suffering some type of pain from this. Parkland is such a close-knit community that we were all connected to each person that we lost in some way. We mourn them together as a community,” adds Vicki. “He didn’t just kill those children—he killed something inside each one of our kids: their innocence.”
Messing doesn’t know exactly what to expect of the first day back. But she’s hopeful that returning to school will offer her and her classmates the comfort of unity and an opportunity to take action. “Parkland will not let the precious lives we lost go without being remembered,” Vicki says. “It is in their memory that we fight for change so that this never happens again, anywhere.”