by Jamie Rich | June 28, 2018

My Florida: Fly Like an Eagle

How the shooting at my alma mater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, woke me up.

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Grad Night for Class of 1995; Photography courtesy Jamie Rich

In the summer of 1993 I turned 16. I got my dream car, a black 1985 BMW with a manual transmission and a crank sunroof. I was over the moon. Then my parents broke the news that we were moving to Florida. I was devastated.

My dad had a great new job in Fort Lauderdale, which may as well have been Fort Knox for all I cared. It was far, far away from my friends and family in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I had grown up. That August we moved to Parkland, and shortly after I started my junior year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, not knowing a soul among the 3,000 students.

I was a prepster with a white grosgrain ribbon in my hair. I remember, the first day, walking through the pristine atrium of the school, which had opened only three years earlier, and thinking it was as big as a college campus. I was not in North Carolina anymore. Everything seemed huge and foreign. Even the air smelled funny, with the tropical flora in full bloom.

Guys named Vinny and Gino drove fast cars with T-tops and had tattoos. The cheerleaders wore slouchy socks and name-plate necklaces. Suddenly my Southern accent was magnified 1,000 percent. Some of the girls called me “Sandra D,” and it was not a compliment.

Douglas high school was an awkward adjustment for many months, which in teenage years felt like a decade. I had no choice but to make it work. Eventually Vinny and Gino were among my friends, and I found my tribe. But after graduating in 1995, Stoneman Douglas was in my rearview mirror. I moved to Tallahassee, then Atlanta, Moscow, Washington, Douala, Cameroon, London and eventually to Jacksonville, Florida. Over the course of 23 years, my eagle pride waned, just by virtue of growing up.

That all changed on February 14, 2018, when a shooter walked into my alma mater and opened fire, killing 17 people.

Rich with friends Brooke Bacon West and Michelle Tano Francos; Photography courtesy Jamie Rich

I first heard the news of the shooting from my dad, who texted me while I was sifting through story ideas at the Flamingo offices in North Florida.

“There’s been a shooting at Douglas,” he wrote. “Kiss the girls for us,” referencing my two daughters.

I reached out to my younger brother, also a graduate, and to the small group of Douglas friends I was still in touch with. All of us were in shock.

“I can’t stop crying,” my friend Brooke West wrote in a text.

From my computer I watched live news coverage of kids with their hands up, streaming out of the courtyard by the gym, where I used to hang out after school before cross-country practice. Back then there were no fences or barriers, just a beautiful open campus. But back then school shootings weren’t a thing. The scene was eerily familiar and oddly surreal. The aerial views of the school on CNN showed that Parkland had been built up and was vastly bigger than it was in 1995. I barely recognized the town but at the same time completely connected with it, as my old house was less than a mile from the school.

The city of Parkland was now globally trending. As the world would come to know, Stoneman Douglas became the site of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Messages and calls from friends in Florida and beyond lit up my phone into the night.

I was invited to join a Facebook group, Mobilizing MSD Alumni. Two thousand people were already members of the group by 10 p.m. I stayed up late reading the posts from fellow alumni, who were both shaken and united by the unfolding tragedy. I watched our homecoming queen Julie Novak sing the school song on a video she posted from her home in Colorado, while other names and faces I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 20 years popped up to share their thoughts and emotions.

Like Brooke, and thousands of others, I couldn’t stop crying.

By the time I woke up the next morning, 4,000 alumni had joined the group. Today 11,570 Eagles are part of this Facebook forum, determined to create change.

I have to admit that before February 14, I was numb to the constant stream of news stories about mass shootings. It’s like the way war footage has become over the last decade: We read. We feel terrible. And then we go on with our lives. Two years ago, the Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando lingered with me for weeks. Flamingo had just launched a few months earlier, and in response we posted a rainbow heart with #OrlandoStrong on our social media feed to show our support. I devoured the news and was consumed with the story. I cared, but I did little.

Rich and friend
Christine Silva in 1995; Photography courtesy Jamie Rich

Unfortunately, a mass shooting had to touch my life, my town, my school, before I took action, which hasn’t been an easy or straightforward path. Flamingo has become an amazing platform for Floridians to share stories and views across the state and beyond, so why shouldn’t we use it to address the shooting? To that end, we created an online series, The Power of the Pen, calling for essays and giving readers a place to add their voices to the debates on gun control, mental health and school safety. A range of readers, from best-selling author Lisa Unger to a retired police sergeant to a Fort Lauderdale teacher to a North Florida finance professional, submitted pieces.

Initially, dozens of people chimed in on social media saying they wanted to raise their voices. Much fewer actually took time to write. Like the old me, they let their emotion fade, and days later the Douglas shooting didn’t seem so pressing. I know some people don’t want to think about it anymore. I understand. But we have to.

I want readers to turn the pages of Flamingo to escape, enrich themselves and most importantly have fun. But I’ve come to realize that uncomfortable stories will come along that are too important to let lie.

Over the last four months, my eagle pride soared higher than it ever did. I’m in awe of the current Douglas students like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who have become the faces of the March for Our Lives movement and motivated millions of people from all political parties in cities across the world, including Jacksonville, to show up to march. I’m proud to say I was among them. I’m proud of my classmate Jamie Bayardelle for co-founding the Florida-based nonprofit Children’s Safety Coalition, to take an active role in creating change. I’m proud of Governor Rick Scott for acting quickly by signing into law the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act and acknowledging that guns, along with mental health and school security, are part of the problem. The $500 million plan to fortify schools, help the mentally ill and make purchasing guns in Florida more difficult is a huge step in the right direction.

To be sure, Eagles want more.

For those who haven’t figured out how to make an impact (I’m still navigating it myself), it’s never too late to raise your voice. Write a Power of the Pen essay or a letter to your congressman or congresswoman. Vote in the next election cycle. Volunteer with a nonprofit group like the Children’s Safety Coalition. But the first thing we all have to do is never forget the devastation on February 14 and stay MSD Strong.

Submit essays for Power of The Pen to editorial@flamingomag.com.