Most of us are more than one thing, but sometimes one thing happens that changes us forever.
David Hogg, a survivor of last year’s Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland, Florida, comes to mind.
He was 17 when, sitting in his AP environmental science class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, he heard a gunshot at 2:30 p.m.
He and his terrified classmates crammed into a small closet as more gunfire erupted. The shooter fired more than 100 rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, killing 17 people. Fourteen of them were students.
“It was sheer terror,” Hogg told CNN days later.
In that cramped closet, the 17-year-old student journalist pulled out his cellphone and started interviewing classmates closest to him. Their whispered accounts are breathless, their fear palpable.
“I want to show these people exactly what’s going on when these children are facing bullets flying through classrooms and students are dying trying to get an education,” he told CNN. “That’s not OK, and that’s not acceptable, and we need to fix that.”
In that day, in the wake of so much loss, David Hogg the activist was born.
He went home that day, but in the early evening, he rode his bike back to school to talk to reporters still gathered there. Soon, he and other survivors were nationally recognizable. They co-founded the March for Our Lives to push for stronger gun law reform and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. They won the International Children’s Peace Prize. They became targets of right-wing threats and propaganda, too.
On the eve of the anniversary, NPR’s David Greene interviewed Hogg. I found it impossible to listen to him and do anything else at the same time. It was so clear that in many ways, this teenager has left his childhood behind.
His activism has taken him to some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America, where he talks to other victims of gun violence. “I’ve met families that literally eat on the floor in their household so that they don’t get hit by a stray bullet coming in through their window,” he told Greene. “Those are the stories that are not being told.”
Greene mentioned a story in which one of Hogg’s friends described him as more complex than the activist we see “behind the microphone and out there speaking.” Hogg, Greene quoted the friend as saying, “can be a goofball and vulnerable and a jokester.”
“Has this movement forced you to take on a certain persona to make it work, to be a leader?” Greene asked. “Do you take those times to be vulnerable in your private life?”
“Yeah, definitely. Anybody put in my position would act differently,” Hogg said. But “it has to do with how it gets covered. It’s always going to get more media hits that ‘David Hogg says that the NRA benefits off of school shootings because they’re funded by gun manufacturers, whose sales go up after every school shooting’ than me talking about something funny, because … I’m not a comedian, right? And that’s something that you’re really never going to see in the national media — unless, like, you see me riding one of those amazing electric scooters in D.C. going to lobby in Congress.”
For just a moment, Hogg then sounded like any other teenager. “I like surfing a lot. I like watching The Office and cooking with Emma, one of my best friends. Those are the intimate times with friends that you don’t see because nobody likes to see us as kids.”
Hogg’s response answered more than he was asked. He wants to be that kid still, but his activism — along with a year’s worth of strangers’ assumptions and attacks — seems to be forcing him to come to terms with a fame he did not seek. He is learning that leadership is often lonely.
For David Hogg and his fellow survivors, Valentine’s Day will most likely never again be a contrived special date on the calendar. This is true for the rest of us, too, if we choose. “The Parkland tragedy,” we tend to call it. Such a softer heart’s landing than the massacre that it was.
At the end of the interview, Hogg made a request, because of that one thing that has changed who he will be for the rest of his life.
“And please,” he told Greene, “don’t say the shooter’s name or show their face in y’all’s articles.”
There are heroes, and there is unspeakable evil. David Hogg wants us to remember that, too.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
IMAGE: David Hogg (left) and Emma Gonzalez (right) at rally to support firearm safety legislation in Fort Lauderdale, FL, March 27, 2018.