As the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School class of 2021 walks across the BB&T Center stage Tuesday night, the graduates will be wearing caps and gowns and carrying an emotional burden.
They are the school’s last survivors of the 2018 massacre, and they are keenly aware that nine of their classmates are missing this milestone achievement.
“Some of us are lucky enough to graduate and to do great things in our futures, but others aren’t, so it’s important to keep in mind that as we recognize our privilege and our opportunities to go to college, make more friends, get jobs, start families, do all the beautiful things that come with being alive,” said Eden Samara, a senior who is graduating tonight.
Alex Schachter, Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin Duque, Jaime Guttenberg, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Alaina Petty, and Peter Wang died in the attack and would have graduated Tuesday night.
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“Not only are we graduating for them, but we are living through them in a way,” said Caroline Kendall, a graduating senior.
Caroline and Eden are friends and peers, and even though they are graduating, they’re not leaving in one sense, because the student survivors from MSD can’t ever fully leave their experiences behind.
“Never thought that I’d have to run for my life at school but that’s something that obviously I’m gonna have to live with,” said Caroline, who was on the first floor of the 1200 building when the killing started.
“I mean, I was 14 years old when the shooting happened and I turn 18 tomorrow, so it feels like a lifetime ago, and at the same time, it could’ve been yesterday,” Eden said.
Going through the crucible of the tragedy, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been a bonding experience.
“When tragedy struck, it was obviously a difficult situation for everyone and none of us thought that something like that would ever happen, but we were able to come together as not only a school but a community,” Caroline said.
“Because of what happened, because of all our time together, we’ve become so close,” Eden said, referring to the entire senior class.
As they write their next chapter, the graduates can’t escape the survivor’s guilt that comes with knowing none of their classmates won’t go to college, get jobs, start families, or any of the normal things most of us take for granted.
“I think it’s really important to recognize that we have to do these things for the people who can’t now because those nine children should’ve had the opportunity to do all the things we’re doing," Eden said.
During the ceremony, the school will call the victims’ families to the stage to honor their children.
“None of us thought we’d be celebrating their graduation day without them,” said Tony Montalto, who lost his daughter, Gina, in the shooting. “One thing we truly hope for is that those that are graduating today can let the legacy of Gina and the others be laughter and smiles and the good times they shared rather than the tragedy that took them.”
Montalto said another important legacy of the victims is the legislation, which improved school safety statewide.
Some of the graduates saw unspeakable things which will never leave their minds. Now they will have pomp and circumstance and graduation memories to cherish.