Three weeks after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the school is slowly picking up the pieces. Classes have resumed, benefit concerts have been planned, and survivors have become activists. All the while, the 30-plus members of the Stoneman Douglas yearbook, The Aerie, have been hard at work.
By the beginning of February, they had filled over 400 pages and were on track to meet their March 9 deadline. But after the shooting on February 14, they’ve had to change course completely, as they grapple with the challenge of covering an unthinkable tragedy in their book’s pages.
“The day after the shooting happened, as the editor-in-chief, my only question was, ‘Holy cow, how in the world are we going to cover this?’” Kyra Parrow, an 18-year-old senior, told MTV News.
Parrow has been on the Aerie staff since her freshman year, and has worked her way up from a photographer to her current positions: co-photo editor and co-editor-in-chief. Together with the yearbook’s other photo editor, 16-year-old junior Rain Valladares, she uses her camera to capture what it’s like being a student at Stoneman Douglas. That was a fairly straightforward job a month ago, but now, it couldn’t be more complicated — or more important.
On the day of the shooting, Valladares was taking photos for the yearbook during lunchtime. It was Valentine’s Day, and she wanted to capture the festive mood on campus. She took a couple pics of senior Emma Gonzalez — who, in the following days, would go on to become one of the country’s most visible gun violence prevention activists — handing out love proclamations at a table outside. Then she photographed her friend Tori Gonzalez, who was gleefully smiling while holding a pink bag with a candy rose in it: a Valentine’s gift for her boyfriend, Joaquin Oliver. That afternoon, Oliver was one of the 17 victims who was shot and killed inside the school.
When the shooting started a couple hours later, Valladares’s environmental studies teacher led her and the rest of the class to a concealed area of the culinary room downstairs. There, a cluster of about 50 people, including three teachers, hid until a SWAT team found them and escorted them to safety. Valladares was forced to leave her backpack — which had her camera inside of it — on the culinary room floor, and wasn’t able to go back to the school and retrieve it until 12 days later. It was then that she saw the photos she had taken of Tori and the rest of her classmates on that Valentine’s Day afternoon.
“It hurt so bad to see those pictures again,” Valladares said. “It’s just crazy how, now, our lives are divided into a before and an after. These photos are the before.”
Valladares didn’t see Tori again until almost two weeks after the shooting. When the two finally reunited at school, they hugged and cried, and Tori thanked Valladares for “capturing her happiest morning.”
“She said that when she saw those photos, reality finally set in for her: that things are never going to be the same,” Valladares recalled. “She needs those photos. She deserves to know how she was before and think of that day and remember what it started out to be, and how much she loved [Oliver] and how much he loved her.”
The day after the shooting, co-editors Parrow and Valladeres went to Pine Trails Park for a candlelight vigil. It was there that they experienced what it was like capturing the aftermath of a tragedy, and witnessed firsthand the challenges of photographing people in a time of mourning and grief.
“One of my friends was shot and she happened to be there,” Parrow said. “I hugged her and I was crying with her, and the media people were in my face with their cameras. I was like, ‘This can’t be happening!’ If I was around someone who was crying, my camera was on my shoulder, not in the position to take a picture. Because for me, I’m in their shoes as well. I’m grieving with my friends, and I knew I wouldn’t want that to be happening to me.”
Though Valladares's camera was locked up at school the day of the vigil, she also noticed the same tension between photographers and mourners.
“Everyone was a complete mess, including me,” she said. “There were photographers in people’s faces, and one lady started cursing this one [photographer] out. It made me question, because I want to do photojournalism, how would I approach this?”
That’s a dilemma both Parrow and Valladares are grappling with now, as they face a monumental task: capturing their friends and peers on camera in the aftermath of a tragedy, and putting that into a yearbook that they’ll have for the rest of their lives.
“It’s definitely super, super hard,” Valladares said. “Death is the most sensitive subject that anyone can ever talk about. It’s still a process [figuring out] how we’re going to be able to do this in the best way possible.”
The Aerie is formatted in chronological order, covering “every little thing” that happens at Stoneman Douglas — from a baseball team that won a national championship a few years ago to the school's band winning at states this year to science fairs and plays — from August until March. Parrow says that blueprint will still apply to the 2017-18 book because this life-altering tragedy isn't the only thing that defines their year.
“We don’t want the entire yearbook to be about the shooting, because we want to show what [else] happened during the school year,” Parrow said. “But we do want to give justice to our fallen classmates and our fallen coaches and teacher.”
The staff plans to devote an entire page to each of the 17 victims, and they’ll also cover the school-wide trends they’ve seen in the aftermath of the shooting, like students getting tattoos and friends of Oliver’s dying their hair blond in his honor.
“Our biggest concern as a yearbook staff is how we do justice to the victims,” Parrow explained. “All the victims are going to have their own pages and their stories are going to be written as a way to show who they were. Nick Dworet, for example, got a scholarship to college for swimming, and people should know that about him. We want to make sure that when people finish that book, they know who all 17 victims were, what their personalities were, what their accomplishments were.”
She admits “there’s so much to do,” but the staff has at least been graced with some much-needed time. Their original deadline was on March 9, but the book’s publisher, Walsworth Publishing Company, reached out after the shooting to assure them that all of their deadlines have been forgiven and nothing is due yet. Still, they’re feeling the pressure of getting the book — which is currently at a whopping 449 pages, compared to last year’s 416 — just right.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a burden, but it’s definitely a heavy thing on our shoulders,” Parrow said. “When this book goes out, all 3,000 students are going to want this yearbook. Every single faculty member is going to want this yearbook. The entire community is going to want this yearbook. It’s going to be all eyes on this yearbook.”
Valladares agreed, adding, “There’s always little mistakes here and there in the yearbook and we always get criticized for it, even if it’s just a small thing. But we can’t do that this year. Everyone’s buying yearbooks now; everyone wants to know what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. There’s pressure, but we have a responsibility.”
Each year, the award-winning Aerie has a theme that carries throughout the book. Last year, it was “Long Story Short,” and the two years’ prior to that, it was “Exposure” and “Legacy,” respectively. The theme is chosen by the staff an entire year in advance, meaning this year’s was decided back in the spring of 2017. That chosen theme? “As One.”
“It’s bizarre and crazy,” Parrow said about the theme, which has taken on a whole new meaning during the past couple weeks. “It’s definitely a great theme to have to go through something like this. We couldn’t have picked a more perfect one, really.”
In the wake of the shooting, the students have come to embody their incredibly poignant theme. “Before everything, we were proud of ourselves,” Valladares added. "We’re very involved, and it’s a very upbeat school. Now, we’re just coming together and showing unity and appreciation and gratitude. And pride: that’s the biggest word.”
Parrow and the rest of the staff plan to show "every single aspect of light and love that's happened after" February 14. The team will focus on the words "As One" and tie it into the sense of community at Douglas, which was strong before, but is unbreakable now.
For five ways you can take action on gun violence, head over to Everytown.org.