CAPE CORAL, Fla. — Her journey began in the sticky Florida dawn, the horizon blazing orange.
Catie Krakow pulled out of her family’s driveway in her petite blue sedan, her mother in the passenger seat, and the back seat crammed with her belongings: bedding and photographs and clothes, including sweatshirts and T-shirts tattooed with the name of her alma mater — Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, in Parkland, Fla. Her nervous father loaded up the last of her things and followed behind protectively, his hulking SUV overshadowing her car.
They traveled like that for nearly all of the three-hour drive to the University of Central Florida, where Catie joined 57,000 students who started school this fall. In the months since the Feb. 14 shooting that took 14 of their classmates and three school staff members, Catie and her friends have fought to rebuild their teenage lives, to return to the routine angst and ecstasy that are supposed to define late adolescence.
For Catie and the other members of Generation Parkland — still haunted by the sound of gunshots and screams of their classmates — the start of their college years represents something more: a chance to move on.
But at college campuses across the country, counselors and administrators recognize that many students bring with them untreated trauma, contributing to memory impairment, insomnia, and heightened depression and anxiety. In the past three years, the counseling center at the University of Central Florida has treated a growing roster of students, said Teresa Michaelson-Chmelir, outreach director for the university’s counseling and psychological services.
One factor, she said: school shootings.
Even students who did not witness shootings carry the fear it could happen at their school — or in their lecture hall. Despite their rarity, school shootings occupy an outsize role in the psyche of students, who have been accustomed to lockdown drills and safety videos, showing them how to evade gunfire on campus. Some students have begun routinely scanning for escape routes when they enter a room.
As college campuses begin the new school year, they welcome a freshman class whose generation has come to be defined not only by school violence but by their forceful reaction to it. This spring, their voices carried across parking lots, through football fields and down high school hallways. This fall, the senior members of Generation Parkland are starting to move on.
Many of these students, fresh from months of protests over gun violence, have packed up their childhood bedrooms and cleaned out their closets. They have made their Target runs, said their goodbyes to little brothers and sisters, settled into college campuses. They are ready for the next chapter.
Some, like Catie, witnessed the carnage wrought by gun violence. Others contributed to the activism born of that. They heard their voices grow stronger — as their peers held court with elected officials and headlined the national news. In the coming months, they will decide who they want to be here, in their new homes.
Despite panic attacks and anxiety that sometimes seizes without reason, 18-year-old Catie has forged ahead, determined to experience life as an ordinary college freshman.
“I don’t want people treating me differently,” she said.
There was gunfire at Anna Downing’s high school in western Texas, too. She was attending class in a trailer outside the main building during the 2016 incident. She didn’t hear the gunshots — just the screams.
“Which was terrifying,” Anna said. “Nothing like this had happened, anywhere, because we’re such a small town.”
She learned that another girl had been shot, someone she had been friends with since middle school. Police showed up to evacuate Anna’s classroom at Alpine High School. That was scary, too.
“It affected me,” said Anna, whose friend was injured in the shooting, which left only the shooter dead. “I really didn’t think it was going to. But there were days where I just couldn’t stop thinking about it and how I felt — just that pure terror.”
So when she was a high school senior, Anna stood up and walked out to protest gun violence. She left her U.S. government class, even though she was a member of the National Honor Society and felt anxious about the potential consequences of this minor act of rebellion.
“It kind of gave me more confidence in myself,” she said. “And how I can stand up for myself in the future.”
In August, Anna was preparing to leave for Beloit College, a liberal-arts school in Wisconsin. The 18-year-old was leaving her hometown but not giving up the sense of purpose she found there.
“I have to realize that it happens everywhere, not just at my school,” she said.
If there was an organization focused on gun violence at Beloit, or even just a discussion about it, Anna planned to join.
“Because it is very important to me,” Anna said.
Quintin Harry had prepared for this new chapter. He was hundreds of miles away from Stoneman Douglas the day of the shooting there. He didn’t really hear what happened until he walked into his debate classroom in Pascagoula High School in Mississippi.
“In that class, [we] had been talking about shootings that had been going on throughout the school year,” Quintin said. “It was very intense, because we were thinking about how many had happened. . . . We were kind of horrified that the numbers kept increasing, and nothing was being discussed.”
Quintin had served on a youth council that dealt with sexual education in the state. But after Parkland, his focused shifted.
“In my state of Mississippi, the legislature almost immediately started to talk about a bill that would arm teachers,” Quintin said. “I didn’t want that to happen. So [I] and fellow like-minded students started to work on that issue, and it kind of spiraled out into everything else.”
During a student walkout at his school, he spoke about how important it was to vote.
“Despite how young we are,” he said, “our voices do matter.”
Quintin, 18, reflected on that effort days before he was planning to move to the University of Maryland at College Park. Although he was leaving his home state, he had worked to make sure his voice would still be heard in Mississippi, helping found a group focused on gun violence issues.
“I wanted to maintain a connection to Mississippi just to make sure that we could fight that fight,” he said. “But also, I wanted to expand out. I didn’t want to just stay focused on Mississippi.”
The group, whose co-founder stayed in Mississippi, has already started the groundwork for growth, Quintin said, speaking with other students who are interested in bringing the work to their states.
“So we’re slowly expanding out,” he said. “But I know that I’m going to be working in Maryland on the same issue, as well.”
In Florida, Catie was too overwhelmed to join the students marching in the streets. She and other classmates who witnessed the violence sometimes felt invisible and ignored as other classmates achieved celebrity status with CNN appearances and powerful speeches before throngs of inspired youngsters. Instead, she quietly raised money for a scholarship to help kids with swim team expenses. It was established in the name of Nicholas Dworet, a college-bound swimmer who died just feet from her that day in Parkland.
For Catie and other Stoneman Douglas graduates, the arrival on a college campus comes with a delicate negotiation around their identity. Catie and her friends have encountered people who laugh nervously when they mention Stoneman Douglas. Sometimes, Catie and the others are vague about where they are from, so they don’t have to deal with awkward remarks.
“It shouldn’t be something that defines me,” Catie said.
Her roommate, Maddie Marinkovich, is a Stoneman Douglas graduate, too. She grieves the loss of two friends — grief that has become part of who she is. A sunflower tattoo adorns her wrist in memory of her friend Joaquin Oliver, who delivered sunflowers to another student, his Valentine, hours before being slain at the school. She hung a tapestry of sunflowers in Joaquin’s memory above her desk. She was close, too, with Jaime Guttenberg, a freshman on her dance team who died that day. For them, Maddie made a small sign that she nestled in to the arms of a teddy bear: “Joaquin, Dad, Jaime,” it reads. Her father died in his sleep when she was in middle school.
“It’s a part of my life now,” Maddie said.
And even though she’s no longer in Parkland, where there are “MSD Strong” stickers on nearly every car, and memorial banners still hang at the Walmart and the Publix grocery store, the shooting remains omnipresent. One day last month, she took a peek at her Twitter feed during English class and saw a tweet about how Fred Guttenberg, Jaime’s father, had attempted to shake the hand of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh but was rebuffed. She stewed the rest of the class, unable to focus on the professor.
This year, Catie joins 68 other Stoneman Douglas alumni who begin their first term at the University of Central Florida, many of whom graduated alongside her, and all of them shaped by the tragedy that came to define their school, which was once just another large, suburban Florida high school.
Catie has contemplated what it would be like if she stopped wearing Stoneman Douglas apparel and if she became just another smart Florida teen on this booming campus. Her parents, Cheryl and Jeff Krakow, had already relocated from Parkland to Cape Coral over the summer, a move they expedited in the wake of the shooting.
The challenges confronting these students became apparent even before classes began for the summer term — when many UCF freshman start. A Stoneman Douglas graduate tweeted a warning that a safety video shown during orientation depicted a shooting: “Its incredibly real looking and triggering, they give you no warning of this video at all which i do not understand. so here’s a warning,” she wrote.
Then there are the interruptions to daily life. Once, when Catie and her roommates were chatting in their dorm suite, three loud bangs pierced the air. To Catie, they sounded like gunshots. She froze and then broke down in tears, and then struggled to sleep that night.
At dinner before her parents left the school in Orlando, Catie, her parents and her boyfriend gathered in a corner booth at Bahama Breeze. Cheryl ordered a rum cocktail called a painkiller and then quipped, half-joking, “I’m killing the pain of my daughter leaving me.”
Out in the parking lot, Jeff pulled the Escalade alongside Catie’s car one last time to say goodbye. He loaded pallets of water into her car and slipped her a little cash. They hugged and kissed goodbye, and Catie started the car. Then her father ran up to the driver’s side window to deliver one last message: Watch out for the obnoxious young men, he counseled, who might become her classmates.
“I’m okay,” Cheryl said, watching Catie pull away with her boyfriend. “She has her whole life ahead of her. I told her, ‘You can’t live your whole life like a victim.’ ”