For Sam Fuentes: Parkland.
“silence is the language of god,
all else is poor translation.”
Before the dust settles, before the news cycle cycles through yet again, before the next shooting captures our short attention span and our president has another tantrum, here’s all I want to say: I was there.
I was there in Washington DC on Saturday, March 24, 2018. I was there with my seventh grade son, hung over from the redeye. We flew in from California with two – count them two! – middle school groups who gratefully nodded off for a few hours along with us. We landed at Dulles and were driven by an older gentleman who bundled us into his car where we all nodded along with MSNBC. He knew why we were there. He wanted to know if we knew about yet another shooting in Maryland. We did. “It’s got to stop,” he muttered. It does.
Bodhi and I were there, along with his friend Benny and Benny’s mother, my friend, Kym. We were there in the bright new springlight, shining sweetly as we collectively create a sturdy container for the fathomless grief that gun violence has created.
In my line of work, we talk about keeping the channel open to allow authentic expression to pass through. This is surprisingly hard to do. When the body is overtaken by emotion – rage, weeping, self-consciousness – our bodies (specifically our throats) naturally constrict and we shut down. Most people stop talking at this point; it’s hard to speak through tears. And most people don’t want to. Most people want to compose themselves, “get themselves together” and not be seen in such a disarrayed and dis-regulated state. Like, most people don’t want to speak at a loved ones memorial if they think they can’t “get through it.” So when most people talk about “being upset” they often do so at a distance; they report on something that already happened. All they can do is put limited words to overwhelming emotions. Most people want to be in control of the roiling emotions that hijack our cool.
The speakers on March 24, 2018 were not most people.
When I first heard the Parkland students speak, days after their world was shattered, I thought: these are open channels. These people do not stop communicating when powerful emotions arise. Their mouths and their throats miraculously stay open; their need to tell the truth is more, much more, than their need to protect themselves. Because of this, we heard it. We heard the anguish of trauma, we heard the howling grief for slain friends and we heard the rage of being disregarded by the lawmakers and adults who did not and do not protect this generation. More clearly even than cell phone footage, all this was communicated through their anguished voices and their searing intellects. It is an ancient art, this communication. It is the Greek runner reporting on Marathon, or the women at Jesus’ tomb. It is the human body, breathless and stunned, telling a story unbound by societal norms.
The speakers on Saturday were unbound. Along with Emma Gonzales and David Hogg, we heard from young speaker after young speaker whose lives had been devastated by gun violence. I expected fire and outrage; I did not expect mourning. “This is a wake,” I said to myself as 800,000 of us spoke Edna Chavez’s brother’s name – “Ricado, Ricardo” – as tears streamed down her face. We sang Happy Birthday to Nick Dworet, a Parkland victim. We nodded to the names that the young preacher Naomi Wadler instructed us to say. We publicly mourned in the sacred silence that Emma Gonzalez created for us. And we waited for Sam Fuentes to wipe her face with the back of her hand after vomiting, flash that lopsided smile that I cannot think of without weeping, and return to her speech.
The natural embarrassment that 99.9999% of us would have after vomiting on national television was nowhere in evidence in Sam’s breathtaking smile. The power of these survivors is palpable; conventional society cannot touch them. This is the generation born in the shadow of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech. These were the children hearing of school shooters as they took their first steps and counted Goldfish crackers. Like most children, they heard it all. This was also the generation fiddling with parent’s iPhone, creating SOS calls with the other Goldfish cracker eaters, crying out: what is going on?
Their need to tell the truth is more, much more, than their need to protect themselves. They are open channels, and they’ve opened the channel wider to include all victims of gun violence. This generation is not afraid of a big tent. They are not afraid of people who don’t look like them. They are not afraid of speaking openly of privilege and leveraging whatever they have to bring attention to criminal, deadly and corrupt inaction. And they certainly are not afraid of big feeling, feeling that streams snot down cheeks and shakes the voice in the throat. Still, they do not stop.
Of course the only thing the opposition can do is mock. A middle-aged woman, Laura Ingraham (who bizarrely grew up in my hometown) is reduced to trolling a high school survivor of gun violence. The conspiracy theorists claim the students are paid actors. They cannot face the truth of what is being said; they cannot believe that a channel could be that open.
I was standing with some mom friends when Samantha Fuentes started to heave. “Oh baby girl,” my friend Jennifer murmured. If we moms could have lactated at that moment, we would have; collective Mama-bear, we. What is going to happen, we thought, after she vomited up on that national, as her friend rubbed her back. Us Mama-bears assumed: we’ll cheer, she’ll wave, and then she’ll walk offstage, right? Right?? Because isn’t that what happens after most people throw up?
Sam Fuentes is not most people. She flashed that smile, crooked and breathtaking, and she did not stop. Her need to tell the truth was more, much more, than her need to protect herself. I guess after you’ve watched your friends die in pools of blood, been shot at only to be violently trolled and mocked in the court of social media, vomit is no. big. thing. Let’s all wipe our mouths with the back of our hands, flash a smile, and keep our channels open.