OLD TOWN — I am afraid. I am angry. I feel helpless. I feel alone. I feel like the rest of the world is spinning as normal, but those of us who climb school steps each weekday are off-axis. I am one of the lucky ones – I can type this message and rage that it must be written. The unlucky ones are dead.

They died afraid, and angry, and helpless, and alone. They died from a bullet somewhere bullets should never go. They died and they shouldn’t have – they were kids who should have lived long enough to become parents.

My parents are nervous travelers. They both remember where they were on Sept. 11 – my mom was at work at Bangor’s largest hospital, helping create bed space for victims. She said after that day, everything changed. That after, nothing felt safe and she couldn’t rest until her eyes were on Dad and me. I was 6 months old. She said the hospital never took in any survivors – there weren’t enough to need the space.

When she boards an airplane, the twin towers burn in her mind. When my dad’s lap belt clicks, he thinks about the plane that passengers grounded in Pennsylvania but never walked off.

Back when plane passengers weren’t a threat, my mom flew under her uncle’s name so he could get bonus miles. Last time I flew, I got lucky and skipped one step in the hour-long security process by leaving my shoes on. I feel safe on airplanes; I trust the multimillion-dollar technology, the laws in place and the proven security measures. I have confidence in professionals who prioritize my safe arrival.

My parents recognize a distinct before 9/11 and a forever-altered after.

I have lived through over 130 befores and afters (the number of K-12 school shootings in the U.S. since 2000, according to The Washington Post; it’s only an estimate, since our government doesn’t gather this information). There was Sandy Hook, when pictures replayed on every TV of first-graders with missing teeth that would never be replaced. There was Parkland, and now America’s youth are afraid of befores and afters that keep getting closer together, that are blurring in our minds because we have seen too many yearbook photos beside condolence messages. I am sick of living in a before that I know will soon turn into an after – it is a matter of when, not if – and worrying that the body count will include my own.

When I walk into my high school, I feel like my parents do when they board airplanes. I feel my father’s claustrophobia. Instead of one horrific day, instead of a hell that happened once, I see memorials with faces that look like mine. Pictures with the same blue-gray background as one framed in my living room. Many different days of hell – each one no less a travesty than the last.

I do not feel safe walking into my school. I do not trust the government professionals working on this problem or the security around me because I do not see a distinct difference. The befores and afters are blurring together because nothing is changed in the ever-shortening time between.

The American high schooler is a movie role, an iconic period of growth that the adults in my life often want to go back to. Coming of age is supposed to include proms and first kisses, college applications and breakups. I am supposed to cry because I don’t know who I am, not because my classmates and I may never have the chance to find out.

I have a message for those who remember what it was like to become who you are, to go from child to adult in the time spent between classes:

Everybody deserves that chance.

Instead of dates and dances, America’s high schoolers get drills teaching us where we cannot be seen through classroom doors. We get conversations, stilted because our teachers and parents must include news of another tragedy.

I did not know about Parkland until hours later. My parents asked me about my day before asking if I’d heard. I thought, “Again?” And then, “How many?”

I refuse to be as helpless as those thoughts made me feel. I will not accept each event as normal. I will not compare the body counts of the most recent and the ones that came before.

I refuse to be alone. My class will walk onto our high school’s steps over 1,000 times. We want to walk out 1,001. I will write and march and make noise until we can live in a before that never becomes an after.

I am still afraid and angry. I will not stop being afraid and angry until kids with yearbook photos that match mine stop dying afraid and angry, alone and helpless.


Emma Hargreaves, an American high schooler

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