I’ll admit that I cry a lot.
So much that my boyfriend has endearingly given me the nickname “crybaby.” Living in Florida, I’m used to the feeling of hot tears rolling down my cheeks, sticky and uncomfortable in the heat.
But on March 24, I felt something new. The tears came, and they stung as the cold wind whipped my face.
I went to Washington, D.C., on a three-day trip with a group of more than 100 other UCF students. We were going to the March For Our Lives rally, which was planned in wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead. The goal of the rally was to protest gun violence and push for legislative reform to prevent future mass shootings.
While others went to protest, I worked. I was covering the event as a journalist. I did not carry any signs. I did not wear any buttons or T-shirts.
I knew I had to remain impartial and unbiased. I don’t mind playing the role of the uninvolved observer, and I take my job very seriously. But I couldn’t help myself from crying as I documented speeches given at the rally that drew more than 850,000 people.
Hearing stories of children from low-income, high-risk areas who experienced gun violence as part of their daily lives broke my heart. It hurt to hear stories of innocent children being shot and killed on their way home from school. It hurt to hear descriptions of the senseless gun violence that happens in communities in Chicago, south Los Angeles, Baltimore and countless others.
But I’m thankful that these stories were told. To focus solely on the Parkland students — as horrific as their experience was — would be irresponsible. Gun violence comes in many forms; from mass shootings to gang-related gun violence or police brutality, it wears many faces.
And for children to tackle all forms of gun violence and focus on inclusivity was so exceedingly brave to me. Each speech that told the story of lost loved ones affected me more than the last.
It gave me hope for the next generation. I remember every mass shooting from the last 15 years. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach every time I woke up to hear the news announce another mass atrocity had been committed.
As a journalist, I know covering mass shootings will be inevitable. I dread the day when the time comes for me to interview sobbing family members.
But I feel in my heart that these kids — Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Delaney Tarr and more — will create progress. Though I call them kids, many will be able to vote in the next election. I know these experiences will mold how they vote and how they advocate for others to vote.
There was a moment during the march when I was able to stand on a concrete barricade above the crowd as I took pictures and videos. I could see men, women, teenagers and even young children perched on their parent’s shoulders. I saw a sea of cardboard signs that depicted pleas for government action, shrieks of anger and cries for peace — all written in Sharpie and paint. I heard the chants and cheers.
Taking in the whole experience was incredible for me.
I won’t pretend that I know exactly what can be done to makes things better; I don’t have the answers. But I do think people should listen to what these kids have to say. As I journalist, I’ve learned to lend an ear to everyone, especially the people I disagree with or don’t understand. Dismissing these kids because of their age does nothing. These kids will be adults one day. Where will that argument go then?
I think doing important work and their life experiences are shaping them as people. I can’t blame them for feeling the way they do. I may not empathize, but I can sympathize with them.
I listened that day; I heard them, and I heard their silence.
I listened with an open mind and an open heart.
While I couldn’t clap, cheer, chant, wear buttons or carry signs, I could allow myself the small act of crying.