The megaphone was heavy, the Florida sun was beating down on my face, and my knees were shaking uncontrollably. Meanwhile, my adrenaline was working overtime as I scanned the crowd for any signs of danger. My voice was hoarse from shouting from the podium and my heart was pounding.
This was what change felt like, and I had never been prouder in my life.
On March 2, I helped lead the community of students at Seminole High School in Sanford, Florida, who walked out of class in protest of the U.S. government’s failure to undertake gun reform after the Parkland shooting.
Located only a few hours upstate from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, my school is attended by many students who personally knew people affected by the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Furthermore, we’d lost an alum from our school at the Pulse nightclub massacre less than two years ago. Needless to say, we had had enough.
Because, if we’re being honest, teenagers are often overlooked, talked down to or ignored by our society. I was determined to change this attitude by inspiring my fellow students to embrace our potential as our country’s future leaders. The walkout, which initially existed as a rumor floating around campus, became a concrete event when I and several student activists took matters into our own hands. We formed a Snapchat group to coordinate our efforts. Social media was our secret weapon and most powerful tool in bringing together the student body.
For a week, we planned. We met with our administration and enlisted the help of our city’s police to ensure the safety of all student protesters. Most importantly, we crafted the theme of our protest: not loud noise, but loud speech. Not empty anger, but deliberate change. Not embitterment, but empowerment.
And so, my friend Mike and I printed 400 copies of letters addressed to our senator, Marco Rubio, and state representative, Jason Brodeur. In the letters, we included specific policies we wanted our leaders to support ― including repealing the Dickey Amendment, reinstating the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, refusing ALEC legislation at the federal level, and ending the gun show loophole at the state level ― to prove that we had done our research and that we meant business. At the bottom of each letter, we provided space (and plenty of Sharpie markers!) for students to voice their concerns.
We also hoped to honor the lives lost in Parkland and to stand in solidarity with the survivors of the shooting. Each of the organizers wore a black shirt bearing a picture of one of the victims.
I chose to wear the face and name of Carmen Schentrup, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I had read that Carmen was a National Merit finalist, but her letter arrived the day after she died. Carmen’s death felt like a personal loss to me, because next year I will be receiving my own National Merit letter ― the same letter Carmen should’ve gotten, but never will. And to me, that is unthinkable.
“Whenever I thought they had stopped arriving, another set of doors opened and another group of students burst out, and soon, the courtyard was filled. We did this, I remember thinking numbly. We’re all here.”
In spite of our grief, Friday morning felt perfect: one of those bright, sunny, summer-vacation-in-Florida days that makes you feel like anything is possible. The hallways were bursting with excitement, the classrooms were flooded with students carrying signs and wearing orange. During our last organizers’ meeting at lunchtime, the news vans arrived. When they weren’t permitted to enter the school, they mounted their cameras on helicopters. To me, that felt like proof that our plan was working, because we had gotten people’s attention. It was finally our moment.
With 10 minutes left to go before the walkout, we tested out the megaphone one last time. We took a deep breath, reassured each other that everything would be fine, and climbed up onto a wall in our school courtyard. And then it was game on.
All at once, students and teachers started pouring into the courtyard, coming out of classrooms and cafeterias, all of us proudly bearing our signs. Whenever I thought they had stopped arriving, another set of doors opened and another group of students burst out, and soon, the courtyard was filled. We did that, I remember thinking numbly. We’re all here.
After a brief moment of silence in honor of the victims, my fellow activists spoke out to the crowd, using the megaphone that we had borrowed from the school band. One of my friends recited a spoken word poem, and another recited an open letter to Rubio. And then the megaphone was in my hand, and I was looking out at the crowd, and my knees began to shake because the possibility had just occurred to me that anyone could have a gun, but now wasn’t the time to back down.
I lifted up the megaphone and spoke my truth. “We Vote Next,” which had been the rallying cry of my speech, was taken up by the entire crowd, because that kind of empowerment is contagious.
I couldn’t tell you what happened after that, even though my speech has since been featured all over students’ social media. Really, all I remember is feeling more alive and in control than I ever had in my life. In that moment, I forgot that I was nervous and scared. In that moment, I felt bulletproof. I felt like the future.
When the rally was over, the rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. I remember walking off campus to be interviewed by local TV stations. (My friends were later upset that the evening news had spelled my name wrong, but such is the struggle of being young, brown and woke.)
Really, what I learned from the walkout was simple: It’s crucial to always stand up for what you believe in, and when you have a passion, you run ― or in my case, walk ― with it. True activism requires thought and deliberation, not just anger. And at the end of the day, together we are stronger than any bullet.
We have to be.