This is what it’s like: A personal essay

Nevien Soliman/Courtesy

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Content warning: shootings

“Is your sister okay? There was a shooting at Saugus.”

The text message appeared on my phone that morning as I prepared for the day, unaware of what had occurred just moments before at my alma mater and my sister’s current high school. The afterimage of the screen has yet to leave my mind; it’s perpetually seared into my memory. I frantically finished brushing my teeth — already running late that morning — to see what was happening more than 300 miles away in Santa Clarita, California. 

Despite the seemingly thorough lockdown training I received each year from elementary through high school (the usual: run off-campus, hide in a classroom, lock and barricade doors, silence your phone), no active shooter drill growing up could have ever prepared me to be on the receiving end of that text message. When the sheer panic set in that my sister could be in danger, I prayed and cried, and then I prayed again.

My sister was one of the lucky ones that day, and while I hug her tighter than I ever have before, I ask myself, “When will enough truly be enough?” This is what it’s like to be a part of the generation that views school shootings as commonplace.

On Nov. 14, Saugus High School became another amateur war zone, its students the innocent casualties of an American gun violence epidemic. Three dead and two critically injured, the headlines screamed the news nationwide a couple of hours after the initial chaos. The mostly conservative, suburban pocket in sunny SoCal was alarmed by the news.

Media outlet cameras pointed abrasively in the faces of overwhelmed teens, and families told the story of that day to newscasters. The newscasters were infinitely concerned with every tear-soaked tissue and reunited parent and child. Today, however, they have long since moved on to the next breaking news story. Following a localized, views-shares-likes maximization formula, a forgetful culture quickly unfolds. Our pain has become old news.

One after another, the safe spaces of schools — along with cinemas, sanctuaries and more — have become compromised as new battlegrounds of semi-automatics, stripped innocence and shrapnel wounds take their places. Fear and panic ensue from a bang a little too loud or a scream a little too on-pitch or a crowd a little too large or a person a little too close. This is what it’s like to be a part of a generation of survivors.

Following a localized, views-shares-likes maximization formula, a forgetful culture quickly unfolds. Our pain has become old news.

We rack our brains tirelessly, searching for an answer or a reason to provide some small degree of closure. We look for comfort to drown out the trauma that now clings to a place where some of our favorite childhood memories were made.

They tell us to table the discussion out of respect for the lost and the grieving: “This is a time to hold our friends and families close.” Evidently, it is not a time to hold our governments accountable. One of the bleakest realities of school shootings and gun violence, besides their alarming likelihood, is the reluctance of adults to listen.

Second only to motor vehicle accidents, firearms remain a leading cause of death for American youth across the country and the No. 1 cause for Black children and teens.

When the next tragedy hits, we will likely rinse and repeat our hashtags. Politicians who receive large campaign donations from gun lobbyists will again join their hands in ours, keeping us in their thoughts through prayers, but not in mind through their policies. “You are now part of a club that no one wants to belong to,” read a card to the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff Station from the Newtown Police Department in Connecticut — first responders to the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting.

The government’s inadequate gun laws leave the student body perpetually at risk. As the number of people impacted by gun violence continues to grow, young people overwhelmingly bear the burden. When our teachers taught us how to line up nicely in kindergarten, they unknowingly prepared us for moments of evacuation: hands on their heads, lines of students are escorted out to classrooms in single file.

When the dust settles, we find our people and grab a hold of our loved ones. “I thought I’d never see you again” rolls off the tongue like a common greeting, followed by “I love you” to our friends and families. Checking in on siblings and friends and siblings of friends and friends of siblings, a devastated community finds comfort in each other.

Childhood best friends who have grown apart since graduating and leaving for college have regained contact, even if just for a brief period, to sustain one another. As summer fizzled out, I found myself running away from my hometown, aching to get back to my independence at UC Berkeley, but in times like these, there’s nothing that satisfies the ache in my heart to heal with my community.

Just over four weeks since the traumatic event, the scars remain raw and exposed, yet unifying. Connected to one another as well as to other communities across the country, we tell ourselves we are #SaugusStrong, finding ways to overcome the hurt that no trend can qualify. This is what it’s like to be a part of a generation of warriors.

Contact Ashley Soliman at [email protected].