Two weeks after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers, classes resumed at the Parkland, Fla., campus on Wednesday. Like many of her peers, senior Nina Berkowitz left her house that morning unsure what to expect.
Cop cars lined the school entrance as she pulled into the senior parking lot at 8:05 a.m., and immediately, Berkowitz felt the absence of the person who would normally greet her there: Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach who was shot dead while shielding students.
VIDEO: Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Reopens
“I was close with Coach Feis, and he would sit in his golf cart right where we drive into the senior lot every morning,” Berkowitz told InStyle. “I looked forward to seeing his big smile every day when I drove in. He would wave, and I would wave back. Obviously I knew that he wasn’t going to be there today, but when I drove in and didn’t see him to say hello, it really hit me that he wasn’t there—and neither were 16 other people who always were.”
The chilling sense of loss was made only more apparent by what filled the campus instead: flowers, balloons, shrines, and adults. Lots of adults. “There were so many adults there who aren’t normally on campus,” says Berkowitz. The mayor of Parkland was among those greeting students on their way in, along with principals and guidance counselors from area schools. “On our way into school, people were standing there and applauding—we were literally clapped in. That was a bit overwhelming, but I knew everyone had good intentions and wanted us to feel safe and supported.”
Inside, hallways were lined with supportive banners created by alumni and students from local schools. “There was an eerie feeling” walking those halls, she says, but for Berkowitz, the messages of support plastered over lockers felt uplifting. “The banners really helped. There were heart-shaped signs and some with handprints, and seeing those definitely made my day better.”
Instead of following their schedules, students were directed to head straight to their fourth-period classes, which they now know as “the class we were in when it all happened.” For Berkowitz, that’s a Holocaust studies course. “Every single teacher stood in the doorway today, hugging each kid tight as we walked in,” says Berkowitz. Each student received a new course schedule to accommodate the fact that there are fewer classrooms available in the wake of the shooting. “That really signified a new beginning of sorts, because we’re only given new schedules on the first day of school,” says Berkowitz. “Getting a new schedule at the beginning of March was just another little reminder that things will never be the same.”
Class was a time for students and teachers to seek comfort in each other. “None of the teachers were afraid to talk about what happened, and they shared their personal experiences and how we should move forward. A few of them got very choked up and emotional. They were telling us they were so happy to see us and talking about what we’re going to do next,” says Berkowitz. “None of them even mentioned curriculum—it seemed so important two weeks ago, but it’s so unimportant now.”
Instead of lessons, each 30-minute period in the adjusted half-day schedule consisted of activities designed to help students cope with grief. “Teachers were giving out Play-Doh, and we were coloring and eating,” says Berkowitz. “There were service dogs everywhere you looked. We were totally free to go up and hug them. If you wanted to see a dog, you could tell your teacher, and they’d call to request that one be brought to the classroom. Everyone was posting pictures of the dogs on Snapchat. They helped us a lot.”
Grief counselors walked the halls and checked in with teens between classes. “A few of them stopped me to talk about my life or my day,” says Berkowitz. “They genuinely cared, and it was nice having so much support. I felt extremely safe.”
But when all of the activities and the puppies and the congregations of hugging people fell away, the hallways felt full of loss and dread. Berkowitz felt it for the first time while walking to her seventh-period debate class. “I was by myself, and I had to walk to the very back of the school to get to class,” she says. “The police, teachers, and dogs were all near the front entrance, so it got less crowded as I walked. It’s always pretty quiet in that part of the school, but it felt quieter and darker than usual.
“That’s when a really bad feeling suddenly hit me. I felt the absence of what our school was before this, and knowing that 17 of our Eagles were gone,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to for that one moment, and it felt like some kind of apocalypse had happened. “It was awful.”
Berkowitz and her peers were dismissed at 11:40 a.m., and the notion of resuming an after-school routine felt both unnatural and comforting to her. She went to her babysitting job, just as she would after any regular school day.
“I want to get back to the closest thing to normalcy as I can get,” says Berkowitz, who is looking forward to going back to school again tomorrow. “I liked returning to my routine today and being with everyone. I’ve heard teachers and parents saying, ‘Don’t move on; move forward,’ and I think really important. We’re not putting it behind us—we’re being active in the community and talking about it. We have to carry on as well as we can without forgetting what happened.”