It was 2:19 in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day. The students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida would be getting out soon. Maybe some of them had plans for Valentine’s Day. Maybe some had exchanged sweet texts earlier or, if someone was feeling particularly quaint, handed a card to a fellow student they liked. We’ll never know about that. Because for the students that day, and for their families, friends, loved ones, Valentine’s Day will always mark the most horrific day of their lives.

At 2:19 Nikolas Cruz got out of a gold car, an Uber, carrying a duffel bag. In it was an AR-15 and enough ammunition for a full-scale slaughter. There is footage of him coming inside and loading the weapon just as Chris McKenna, a 15-year-old student, turns into the hallway on his way to the restroom. Chris has said that Cruz told him to leave because things were going to get messy. Why he was spared and others were targeted will probably never be known. Chris McKenna ran out, saw Coach Aaron Feis, told him Cruz was inside with a weapon, and the coach got him to safety before going back into the school.

30 seconds later the shooting started. Coach Feis was killed trying to protect students. For 6 minutes Nikolas Cruz went from floor to floor, room to room, mowing people down. He killed seventeen people and wounded seventeen others. He was arrested at 3:40, 79 minutes after he’d started shooting, and a short while after he’d eaten at McDonald’s.

The next day, President Trump addressed the country, giving his usual I-am-a-hostage-and-this-was-written-for-me presentation, a common demeanor for him whenever empathy is called for. He spoke about evil, and grief, and pledged to tackle the issue of mental health. He said nothing about gun control. Days later, he was promoting the idea that teachers should be armed, because the way to curb gun violence is to add more guns into the mix.

In his State of the Union address, Mr. Trump again said nothing about gun control. Which was particularly glaring since he had as his guests two survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Just to review, his response to that shooting was to keep to his scheduled rallies that evening and suggest that the synagogue should have had an armed guard inside.

In the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day shooting the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who survived and escaped a bloodbath that would bring most adults to their knees, took the raw material of grief and shaped it into a movement. They showed this country what it means to be American, what it looks like when you love your country and will not tolerate what it’s turning into. They stood up to politicians who take money from the NRA; they stood up to right-wing pundits who called them actors. They spoke out and are still speaking out, because that’s what you do when you want your country to be everything it can be. When you don’t want America to be swallowed by darkness, to drown in the blood of the slaughtered.

Maybe this Valentine’s Day, between romantic dinners and bouquets of flowers, we can all pause and reflect on what this day means for so many people in Parkland, Florida. Maybe we can linger on what students who are not even old enough to vote have shown us about America. The president does not define this country – no president can. The American people define this country — with their voices, their passion, their tears and their dreams.

Emma Gonzales, one of the students who was on the frontlines of the movement they started, said, “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks…we are going to change the law.”

Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day about love. The students who harnessed their grief, the parents who fight through heartbreak and loss to speak out, are showing us what it means to love the country you believe can do better.


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