By: Sharon Aron Baron
On February 14, the lives of both a mother and daughter were changed when a school shooter entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School taking the lives of 17, injuring many others.
Kim Singer and her daughter Ella, 15, share their first-hand account from that day after Ella, who lost two of her close friends, was having a hard time talking to anyone about it. Kim, who lives in Coral Springs, works for Broward County Public Schools as a specialist coaching teachers who work for the Head Start program. and Ella is a freshman involved with student government, DECA, and Best Buddies.
Kim hopes that their words help other families struggling. “By her being able to write her side, and me writing mine, it allowed us to talk to each other.”
A Mother’s Perspective: What would your last words to your child be?
February 14, 2018 was a typical morning in my house: a well-planned military exercise. Getting ready for work, packing lunches, making breakfast, all while yelling to my 15-year-old daughter, Ella to please make it downstairs for our 7:08 a.m. departure. The only difference was today I snuck a Valentine’s Day card in her lunchbox. She would either secretly like it or be embarrassed. It was anyone’s guess, as are most things with teenagers.
At 2:30 p.m.the first text from her arrived. “Have you heard about a shooting at Douglas?” I gasped. My colleague who was next to me looked up in surprise. “Get on the Internet and see if there is anything about Douglas,” I barked at her as I begin to furiously implement what I dubbed, the “M2MTT”, otherwise known as the mom-to-mom text thread. Messages were firing off: “What do you know? Is it true? Have you heard from (insert name here)?”
My colleague confirmed the news, and I raced out the door. I called my husband who was always thinking clearly. He told me he rode his bike to the school, as if he already knew the severity along with knowing that having a car there would serve no purpose. I raced to the school, radio blasting, as sirens were going by.
While texting Ella intermittently, she confirmed they had already begun to evacuate during the fire alarm, heard the shots, and their teacher quickly moved them back to the room into an interior room behind bookshelves. “She is alive.” I thought to myself. During that moment she was alive. With the words on the news of potential multiple shooters at large, this was all I could hold on to in that moment,
When I was 23 weeks pregnant with Ella, I was placed on bed rest for an incompetent cervix. She was a healthy baby, one that we had tried to have for many years. I had to remain on full bed rest in the hopes of not going into early labor. It would work, or it would not work. We could only hope. I remember the agonizing weeks until she was safe, believing that only I could keep this baby alive. If she does not make it, it is my fault. This felt very strikingly similar – yes, she was alive, but I was powerless to keep her alive.
I arrived to the park near the school and received a message from a number I did not recognize. It was her teacher informing me she had Ella and they were safe. She was my only lifeline at that moment. What could you say to someone who is quite possibly the only line of defense between your child living or not living? She is a mom herself, with her own children to think of. I simply say to her, “ I beg you to please, please keep the children and yourself safe.” She texted back, “I promise to do my best.” What more can you ask of the person with whom you would swap places with in a minute if you could?
The school had a very deep perimeter of police, tactical units, and SWAT units buzzing around. What was once so easily accessed, by a young man intent on murder, was now impenetrable. I wish those two sentences were reversed. The field that my daughter had played soccer on so many times was now a landing pad for trauma helicopters. “Active shooter and multiple fatalities” are the only buzzwords that kept swirling around me, and the only ones I could hear.
I was intermittently in touch with Ella, and each time was the same: “I am safe for now”. With her cell phone left at one percent, I told her the only things I could, “Ella, if you get a chance to, you need to run. Run as fast as you can, and do not look back. I love you, I love you, I love you.” As if I could cram every I love you into a text. As if it would cloak and protect her.
A week later, along with the rest of the country, I learned that the school resource officer never went in the building. While that is troubling, is another fact: Every parent there that day, waiting outside for word of their child, clinging to hope, would have never flinched at the opportunity to run in there and save children. Any child. Our own defenseless children. Our neighbor’s children. The children from our baseball and soccer fields. The children from preschool, mommy and me classes, Girl Scouts, and dance classes. Any of us would have tried to save our community’s children.
When my daughter was released from school, she was able to flag down a kind person who lent her a phone. She let me know she was safe, but we could not reach her due to the blocked perimeter. My husband hopped on his handy bike, rode in a very wide circle to track her down, and walked several miles home with her. It did not matter if it took them all night. She was alive. Several hours later, when my husband and Ella walked the miles home, I hugged her. I hugged her and stared at her in the way you hug your baby the first time you meet them. She was here, she was real, and she was mine.
Once I confirmed my husband had Ella, I moved my thoughts to my other daughter, Lily. As a seventh grader, I knew she was safe on lockdown in her school. She knew there was a shooting at Ella’s school and she knew children had been killed. Was her sister one of them? She had sat home alone, wondering and worried if her sister was alive. My heart still breaks when I think of her alone and the thoughts she endured
Later that night was the realization that friend’s of Ella’s were not accounted for. We learned that two girls, who made my daughter’s life better every day, were taken from us. What do you do? You fall to your knees, you sob, you vacillate between overwhelming guilt that you have your child and someone else does not, and you muster up any ounce of energy you can to hold your daughter together.
I must admit in those first days, I was not the best model. My grief overcame me, my complete and total sadness for my friends who lost children, and for my own child whose once bright high school future seemed now lost forever.
I realized my girls were watching me and I needed to do better. I was teaching them how to grieve. There is no road map for these types of things, but I knew the lessons I showed them in the aftermath would shape how they dealt with grief and trauma in their lives. So, we channeled our energy. We opened our home to families to come together, we sent food, we visited families, and we began to try to pay it forward in small ways. My girls will know that in times of great sadness, you have to do for others.
There are no happy endings here. There are voids in Ella’s life everywhere. In almost every class, a classmate is no longer there. She misses her friends dearly, and the sadness that envelops us all too often leaves us feeling unable to breathe. We are moving forward, not on. She will be 18 and able to vote in the next election. She wants to feel empowered. She will get there.
As for me, I wish I could offer my friends who lost their daughters an ounce of comfort. I cannot. I believe if we could collectively take a small piece of each of our daughters to bring hers back, we would. There is so much sadness here, but there are also glimmers of a future that will not be dictated by this horrific event. I know I am blessed to have Ella. She is not guaranteed to me and I now know this. She may have gotten off easier in the mornings lately by being late, but there is a feeling of weighing what’s really important and what is not that steers me much of the time now. That is not a bad thing. My last words are now always the same, each and every time she leaves. “ I love you, I love you, I love you.”
A Daughter’s Perspective: Ella Singer
On the morning of February 14th, 2018, I woke up late and hurried to get ready for school like any other day. My Mom and I had fought about me being late to get downstairs, which is a pretty common morning theme in my house. I was excited it was Valentine’s Day, and I knew school would be filled with balloons, candy and teddy bears.
I moved from class to class on autopilot, the only interruption being a fire drill at the beginning of second period. The day continued to fly by, until finally, it was last period: study hall. My headphones streamed music through my ears, and my pencil scribbled as my homework and studying was completed. It was 2:28 when the fire alarm went off again. However, this time was quicker. It turned on and off with a quick ring, leaving worried glances darting around the room. All eyes landed on our teacher. She dismissed it nonchalantly as another small accidental flame in the culinary room. Laptops were slowly powered off, and books were placed in backpacks. We were still sitting at our desks cautiously, slowly packing up, when the intercom beeped with an incoming message from our administrator. His booming voice instructed our class to evacuate the building immediately. I grabbed my bag and slung it over my shoulder, and followed the rest of my class out of the door. We were about to run down the stairs, and past the freshman building to our fire drill safety zone, when we noticed an administrator standing between the metal fence isolating the freshman building from the rest of the school, preventing us from going any further. A mass of students gathered at the top of the stairs, watching closely.
That’s when about seven boys darted out of the double doors of the freshman building, into the parking lot, and out of campus. Stupefied looks were passed among the crowd of onlookers at the top of the stairs. Was he not going to chase after them? Why wasn’t he calling security? What alternate universe was this?
That’s when I heard it. Three loud, consecutive, booms sounded from the interior of the freshman building. It sounded like a firecracker going off, but not quite. It was a sound I never really heard before, and I had nothing to associate it with, except a firework. That sound will be etched in my mind forever.
The administrator blocking us from going any closer silently jabbed his thumb in the direction of the classroom we had just evacuated, signaling for us to return immediately. With my heart racing, I sprinted back to my classroom, following my teacher, and fled through the back doors into a large storage room. I stood behind a towering wooden bookshelf, and immediately texted my friends. We did a quick roll call and although we were all spread out throughout the Parkland campus, our fear and confusion was the same, and the pounding of my heart was the same pounding of their hearts. I tried my best to connect with them all, however, I could not.
Everyone in my class was in the same confused state. Was this a drill? We were told we were going to have one of those. Were those fireworks that went off? Rumors flew around the room as each student received information from friends in other buildings. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I texted my parents. Finally, our rumors and suspicions were put to rest when my teacher dialed 911.
She didn’t have to say anything. The tears streaming down her cheeks said it all. It was real. I was experiencing a school shooting in my school. My school that was supposedly “safe”. From that moment on, my thumbs never stopped ferociously tapping on my phone screen once. My phone buzzed and buzzed with texts, calls, and Snapchats. I never stopped texting my parents during the entire shooting, although we did lose communication periodically. I know in those moments my parents were as scared as I was.
Live news streamed on a friend’s phone. We gathered around, watching intently and quietly. Every new text with information was shared around the room. People from all corners of the country I hadn’t talked to in months and years reached out to me in those moments. I didn’t cry once. I was in too much shock to even process what was going on. We practice for drills we believe will never come to fruition. I will never again assume my safety is guaranteed.
I couldn’t even wrap my head around the possibility that I might die, right there, right now, inside my own school. I am 15, and no less then twenty minutes ago I assumed the only immediate thing my future held for me was going to ballet class that evening.
The other students and I gathered close. I had never felt so helpless in my life. All we knew from the news was there was an active shooter. We did not know the status more then that, and the uncertainty was chilling,
When the SWAT team finally came banging on our door, guns in hand, to relieve us of our hiding, we were relieved. They marched us out, arms up in the air, back into our classroom. We continued to wait there as more classes were evacuated, one after the next. Those classes rejoiced together in our small classroom with tears, and also terror. What was out there in the hallway? I texted my parents to let them know SWAT had us. As scared as I was, I know it was equal to how scared they were. I could almost physically feel my mother’s fear through her texts to me it was that palpable.
At this point, there were still two friends I had not heard from, however it was sheer chaos, and would continue to be for quite some time. Everything from that moment on was one big blur. I evacuated my school through a human barrier of SWAT team members. As I walked past the freshman building, each one commanded, “Look left! Look left!” What they really meant was look away from the building where the bodies of your classmates, friends, teachers, and coaches lay dead on the floor. Look away from the shattered glass and pools of blood on the tile floor, the gory scene that forever changed my life and the community around me. I give them credit; they wanted to shield us both emotionally and physically, but I can never unsee what I saw.
I walked in a single file line, my hands up in the air, every limb shaking with nerves and adrenaline. I walked out of the school, and into the enormous crowd of terrified parents and students. I was not able to get to my family, however much later my dad was able to locate me and we began the long walk home. I think hugging my dad, my mom and my sister will be a physical memory I keep for a long time.
When I arrived home, I began to tell the story of my day – how to even begin? In the back of my mind, there was a nagging thread that would not let my body relax. Where were my two friends? Questions that had been plaguing me for hours could not be contained. They would have found a phone. They would have reached out.
Shortly after arriving home, I heard a scream. My mom was screaming. She was manic, screaming and running around the house. I knew then without her ever telling me.
If I had felt hopeless during the shooting, magnify that times one million. How can someone I ate lunch with during third period be gone by fourth? I cannot yet think about those moments without tears, panic, and sadness. I do not know if I ever will.
I went to bed, in a fog, knowing in the pit of my stomach that my other friend would also be gone. I knew when I woke in the morning, I would know.
When I woke up, my mother was in my room. Again, she did not need to use any words. At that point, I was so numb inside I could not even react. Of course she was gone; my while life was turned upside down. Why wouldn’t she be gone? I could not be sad or angry. It was as though over the last 24 hours, my life was a black hole and I had nothing left to even feel.
I am only 15. I have my whole life ahead of me. I do not know why they do not. It breaks my heart every day, and I am angry, I am often terrified, and most of all I am sad. I know I will gather up my strength and do something meaningful, and I know that moving forward does not mean moving on. My friends, along with the fifteen other victims, will always walk alongside of me.