The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Not only lives are lost to gun violence. So, too, are ‘teenage dreams.’

A makeshift memorial is seen outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting left 17 people dead. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

By her estimate, Aalayah Eastmond has talked about the most traumatic day of her life more than 700 times in the past three years.

More than 700 times, she has described how she was sitting in class, wearing headphones and working on a computer, when a gunman opened fire in her high school.

More than 700 times, she has explained how she was hiding behind a classmate, a star swimmer who had Olympic aspirations, when she felt his body fall on hers.

More than 700 times, she has shared how she stayed under his weight, quiet and terrified and struggling to breath, knowing his death was the reason she was still alive.

“If Nick wasn’t in front of me, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Eastmond says of Nicholas Dworet, who was one of 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl. on Feb. 14, 2018.

In the three years that have passed since the shooting, Eastmond has formed a life far from Florida. She is a junior at Trinity Washington University in D.C., where she spends her days studying, taking classes and working toward a goal of one day opening her own law firm. She is a 20-year-old who sometimes doesn’t tell people where she grew up, because she doesn’t want to be that girl, the one that makes people say, “Oh dang, that’s where you went to school.”

But despite the purposeful distance Eastmond has put between herself and that horrific afternoon her high school turned into a crime scene, she returns to that time and place almost every night. After classes, her work takes her onto Zoom where she meets with other survivors of shootings — street shootings, school shootings, domestic shootings, mass shootings. And often on those calls, she listens to their stories and shares hers — again.

When I asked her about the mental energy that takes, she sighed.

“I’m an honest person and I’m in an honest mood, so I’m going to be honest,” she said. “I’m exhausted. I’m tired. I want to have fun and enjoy college, but then I get in my dorm room and I have to sit in front of a camera and talk about the most traumatic day of my life.”

At first talking about what happened felt therapeutic, she said. Now, she clicks on that Zoom icon and answers reporters’ calls for a different reason.

“It’s important for me to do,” she said. “I share my story in hopes that it could possibly save someone’s life, or drive someone to have a conversation that could save people’s lives.”

In recent days, a video was released online that features Eastmond and several other young people who have been affected in brutal ways by school shootings. Among them: Hannah Dysinger, who was hit in the rib cage with the bullet that killed her best friend; Nick Walczak, who was paralyzed by a bullet that injured his spine; and Chase Yarbrough, who was shot six times and still has a bullet lodged in his heart.

You might have seen the video. In it, Eastmond holds up her phone and shows a photo of Dworet. Then, one by one, she and the others slowly sing the lyrics to Katy Perry’s song “Teenage Dream,” turning it from an upbeat tune into a mournful anthem:

Let’s go all the way tonight/

No regrets, just love/

We can dance, until we die/

You and I, will be young forever.

At one point, on the screen, appear these words: “The teenage dream is not what it used to be.”

The video was produced, in English and with Spanish subtitles, by Sandy Hook Promise as a PSA during a time of intense stress and anxiety for young people and a high rate of gun sales.

“With students returning to school this fall after an incredibly hard year of remote learning, it is only a matter of when — not if — a school shooting will occur,” reads a news release about the campaign. “Sadly, there has been a rise in mental health challenges among youth across the country who feel disconnected, anxious, and depressed, and some experts have suggested that we will see a powder keg effect happen when students return to the classroom. Coupled with the rise in gun purchases and violence (2020 was the most violent in recent history), we have a recipe for potential disaster.”

That worry is supported by recent headlines. Among the ones that have appeared just this month on The Washington Post’s website: “Two Florida middle-schoolers charged with plotting mass shooting after ‘extensively studying’ Columbine”; “1 student killed in shooting at North Carolina high school”; “Three people shot, including a student, on Towson University campus, police and school officials say.”

The campaign encourages people to help prevent students from harming themselves or others by learning the signs for at-risk behavior.

It also does something else: It captures, in a quiet but powerful way, what is lost alongside lives in shootings.

I have written before about my middle-school classmate who was killed, and our classmates who were shot, when gang members barged into the wrong house during a birthday party and started firing handguns and shotguns. That shooting changed us at ages 13 and 14. It stole from us a sense of carefreeness and invincibility that we were supposed to feel at our age.

A gang burst into a party and killed a teen. It still haunts her classmates — including me.

That shooting, like the one Eastmond experienced, happened around Valentine’s Day.

“Sometimes I wish I could wake up and go back to Feb. 13, 2018, and how I used to be and how life used to be,” Eastmond tells me when we talk. When I ask her what she thinks about the message in the PSA, she describes Dworet’s dream as “ripped away” by gun violence and hers “altered” by it. “It changed who I am as a person.”

She now lives with depression, PTSD, insomnia and anxiety. She gives herself credit for handling them as well as possible, but even so, she confesses that when she goes to restaurants, she thinks about where she can hide if a shooter comes in. And while she used to love fireworks, she now dreads the Fourth of July.

Living in D.C. has also placed her close to shootings that have left children afraid to walk within their neighborhoods or play outside.

An 11-year-old boy’s killing isn’t proof Black lives don’t matter to Black people. It’s proof of our collective failure.

“We’re always seeing babies in the headline in D.C.,” Eastmond says. “It’s sickening, it’s frustrating and it gets me very upset. It shows people are not doing their jobs. It shows we have an issue with the amount of guns in this country and how they are being brought into cities that have strong gun laws … You would think the fact that we have all the legislators and representatives in this one city, they’d care that 20 minutes away from their office a 3-year-old was shot in the head, but they don’t, and it’s upsetting.”

When Eastmond tells her story, she never knows if she’s going to cry. It depends on if she accidentally lets herself visualize certain things.

As we talk, she shares details from that day with me: How she was tempted to stay home because she didn’t want to see people acting “lovey-dovey” in the hallways. How she knew her Trinidadian mom wouldn’t accept that as an excuse, so she put on a gray dress with black stripes and headed to school. How she saw the bodies of several classmates as she walked out of the building that day.

I listen, knowing she is telling me her story in hopes that people will hear it and care enough to take action. She is telling me it in hopes that she won’t have to keep telling it.

“I can’t wait for the day,” she says, “that we don’t ever have to talk about this issue again.”

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

A Peace Corps worker was on a date in D.C. with his wife. Then came a stray bullet.

A girl’s reaction to the Nationals Park shooting made the world look at D.C.’s gun violence problem

For the nation, 9/11 brought devastation. For the D.C. area, it was the start of 13 months of terror.