Commentary: A long, bumpy ride along with the Parkland teens in search of gun reform

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I awoke at about 4 a.m., jarred from a fitful sleep by a bump on I-95 in southern Virginia and the cold of an unheated bus. The coach was one of four in a caravan of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, parents and alumni on its way to Washington, D.C. for the March for Our Lives rally.

The teenagers huddled in whatever warm-weather gear they had scrounged from the back of their closets in South Florida. Tiny clouds of breath floated upward, briefly made visible by the passing lampposts.

We were on Bus 3, identified by an image of Goofy on 8½-by-11 sheets of paper taped on a number of windows inside. I was leading three journalism students from Florida International University, embedded with the students on the 20-hour ride to the nation’s capital. On Bus 4, Pluto, another three students and my colleague Neil Reisner worked and slept as we got ever closer to our destination.

A little more than a month ago, they were just teenagers, going through the joys, tragedies and the day-to-day dramas of kids from a suburb few outside of the area knew of or had an opinion about. Now they were irrevocably changed. Some are famous. Others may never quite recover from their physical or emotional wounds. All, on some level, are suffering.

But at that moment, they were still kids, proto-adults dressed in maroon #MSDStrong T-shirts. As the bus left South Florida at noon on March 23, they gossiped about parties, relationships, breakups and hookups.

One had to borrow a coat because he had forgotten to check the forecast — a low of 33 and high of 52 — for the day of the march. Another switched buses during a rest break without telling anyone, causing a minor crisis, because he wanted to be with his girlfriend.

But then there was a quiet kid in the back of the bus. The shooting interrupted a lesson about the holocaust, he told FIU reporter Victoria Salas, and he just picked up his smartphone.

“When the alarm bells went off, we joked that someone was shooting up the school,” said the student, who did not want to be identified. “I just started recording.”

Though no one looked at that particular video on the bus, the adults at the front of the bus noted a few students seem almost obsessed, watching videos of the incident taken by their classmates again and again and again.

They can’t look away. They know it’s not good for them, but they can’t stop picking at that scab, increasing its inevitable scarring. Part of it is a normal reaction to trauma, but it’s also the mission that has been thrust on them. The ones I talked to are keenly aware of the opportunity and obligation they have now, to do something their parents, teachers and elected leaders could not.

But at what a cost!

A father of a girl who watched her geography teacher die told me his daughter jumps at slammed doors, cries at things large and small, and just generally finds it hard to concentrate. He changes the channel if she walks into the room when the news, or anything even faintly violent, is showing.

“Does she know I’m doing it?” asked David Steel during a dinner break Friday evening in Savannah. “Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know it matters, but I do it anyhow.”

An hour after dawn on March 24, the group arrived at our drop-off point: the National Guard Armory near RFK Memorial Stadium. If anyone caught the irony of gathering for a gun-control rally outside the headquarters for a “well-organized militia” envisioned by the 2nd Amendment, no one said so.

After a chaotic breakfast at the JW Marriott near the rally, the group headed to their reserved area near the stage. A few parents, lagging behind, found themselves swallowed up by the estimated 800,000-strong crowd, struggling to get to where they needed to go.

“There was a big guy with a booming baritone who saw us and shouted ‘MSD folks! Make way!’” said Kim Golodner, a grandmother of three and parent of two alumni. “It was like the Red Sea parting.”

The phrasing seems apt, given that Passover and Easter overlap this year. So, so many of those students, parents and alumni at the rally seemed convinced a miracle would rise from the thousands of anti-NRA posters. Guns like the AR-15 — the type used to murder 17 people at the school — would be banned, the powerful speeches of the students would change even the most hard-hearted and truth and justice would reign.

But of course it wasn’t like that: even if it was so inclined, Congress wasn’t in session, the opposition appears to have hardened and conspiracies and misleading memes continue to be propagated via social media as before. As the sun went down, hundreds of those protest signs lay in a heap near trashcans near the U.S. Capitol, a poignant analogy of the unchanged reality.

The road to reform, not unlike the 20-hour bus journey from Washington, D.C. to Parkland, Fla., is long and full of bumps. But these students do not yet know how to give up, and I pray they succeed before they learn.

DAN EVANS is an associate professor of journalism at Florida International University in Miami. Prior to that, he was editor of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader and La Cañada Valley Sun, all Times Community News publications.