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Students gathered at a rally in Parkland, Florida.
Students gathered at a rally in Parkland, Florida.
Ian Witlen

In Parkland Speaks, Students Grieve a Life-Changing Tragedy on the Page

Anna Kasperski spent the first seconds of 2019 surrounded by people she loves.

"I have three really close friends, and we went over to one of their houses. I slept over, and we rung in the new year that way," she explains. "I never really spent New Year's with my friends before. In years past, I just stayed at home. But this year, I thought, Why don't we be together?... After what happened, a lot of students at the school haven't been in the best mental place."

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Few people have more reason to want to leave 2018 behind than Kasperski. A freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she's a survivor of the shooting that left 17 dead on Valentine's Day last year. Now, as the anniversary approaches, she's among the contributors to a new book that offers readers a window into the Parkland community's experience that day and how they've managed their grief, fear, and anger throughout the past year.

Sarah Lerner, a teacher and yearbook adviser at MSD, spearheaded the project after the publishing company Random House pitched her the idea of compiling an anthology of student writing in response to the shooting. The result is Parkland Speaks: Survivors From Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories. It's a compilation of work by student writers, photographers, and artists, along with a handful of contributions from teachers and other adults in the MSD community. Its mission, Lerner says, is "to show what we went through that day, and the healing process, using different creative outlets that the students would use to process and deal with their feelings."

Nearly one year after a former student opened fire at MSD, the news cycle has moved on from Parkland — to other shootings, other disasters, other political squabbles. But open the pages of Parkland Speaks and you're reminded of the tragedy's lasting effects — profound, deep, and intense. Its nearly 200 pages contain poetry, essays, photography, and artwork. Among the MSD students' work, Augustus Griffith Jr. wrote verses grappling with race and gun violence, Natasha Martinez shot photos of protest marches, and Grace Briden penned an ode to the therapy dogs in essay form. Kasperski's poem, "Political Puppets," bitterly compares leaders in Congress to the long-nosed liar Pinocchio.

Lerner guided the student contributors with kid gloves, she says. "For some of the students, it really was very easy and therapeutic for them to write these things and work through the process. For other students, it was really quite difficult. [At first] they were quick to say, 'Sure, Mrs. Lerner, I'll do this. I'll give you three things I've been working on.' And then, through the editing process, they realized how raw this was for them." Several students left the project, "which is completely understandable," Lerner emphasizes.

In Parkland Speaks, Students Grieve a Life-Changing Tragedy on the Page (4)
Courtesy of Random House

Parkland Speaks is the latest of several books to come out of the Parkland community since February 14, 2018. We Say #NeverAgain tells the story of the MSD student journalists who covered the attack. Glimmer of Hope tracks the rise of the March for Our Lives movement. #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line was co-authored by David Hogg, one of Parkland's most prominent activists, with his sister Lauren. And now there's Parkland Speaks, with a collage-inspired layout of photos and handwritten poetry and prose, feeling almost like a yearbook of the tragedy itself.

It's also been a pathway to healing. Lerner says several students who participated found the writing and editing process helped them work through their own feelings after the shooting. Kasperski says the same — her poem, which she claims began as "word vomit," is one of the most political in the book. "After the horrible tragedy that happened in February, I didn't know how to release my emotions," she says. "So I opened up a notebook and started writing."

In 2019, Kasperski says, she plans to continue writing — and continue fighting to change gun policies to protect students across the nation. She also hopes she and her friends can help one another find their way out of the dark mental place they've been in for most of the past year.

"We were sitting there on New Years and talking about how we've never felt so down ever before. We felt like we were going further down, mentally," she remembers. "And we told each other, 'we're going to get out of this in 2019, whether it's through art or sports or speaking out about guns or anything' — just anything possible. We want to get out of this funk. It might not be easy, but we're gonna try."

Parkland Speaks goes on sale Tuesday, January 22.

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