THURSDAY | A long drive ahead
The “Hamilton” cast recording blasts from the speakers of a bright orange Pontiac Vibe whizzing down Interstate 95 South, though the voice of Lin-Manuel Miranda is masked by the two teenagers screaming along.
This is routine for 17-year-old Jaxon O’Mara and 18-year-old Mollie Davis. The teen activists play the music to pump them up before every rally or political meeting. Just like Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, they want to change the nation.
“I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I am not throwing away my shot,” the girls sing at the top of their lungs. Then, both break into falsetto at “The plan is to fan this spark into a flame.”
For this ride though, they’ll need more than the two hours and 22 minutes of “Hamilton.” They face at least 15 hours of driving to make it from Great Mills in St. Mary’s County to Parkland, Florida.
Great Mills and Parkland don’t have much in common, except the events they’ve both become known for this year: school shootings.
The Parkland community mourns 17 dead students and staff, while 17 others recover from injuries after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Five weeks later, Jaelynn Willey, 16, was shot and killed at Great Mills High School by another student, who then killed himself. Desmond Barnes, 14, survived the shooting after the bullet that killed Jaelynn struck him in the leg.
In the aftermath of these events and others like the May shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, student activists and survivors have connected to comfort one another over social media. Jaxon and Mollie began regularly texting, tweeting, Facetiming and Instagramming with students just like them — those shocked, outraged and scared that they must walk back into their classrooms and into the rest of the world not feeling safe.
Through this connection, the past six months have birthed a world of teenage activism. A group of Parkland students sparked the March for Our Lives movement, known for its massive Washington, D.C., march, school walkouts across the nation and the Road to Change tour over the summer.
Their platform is smaller, but Jaxon and Mollie hope to have a similar impact. They lead the Great Mills gun reform movement and have joined forces with other Maryland activists. On Aug. 15, they began their own self-funded road to change, raising $3,000 through GoFundMe to get to Parkland.
As they make the drive, fellow Great Mills students 17-year-old Jessie and 15-year-old Olivia Mesmer take their first plane ride to Fort Lauderdale. The sisters haven’t spent the past half-year since the shooting being activists — they’ve been mourning. Jaelynn was their best friend, practically another sister. Their health teacher, Jenna Costello, is also flying in for the trip. She attempted to resuscitate Jaelynn after she was shot, and now she’ll be here to support the students.
In Florida, they seek a sense of healing and understanding they say hasn’t been possible in Great Mills. They want to meet students who share their grief, fear, anger and emotional scars. They’re looking for a place in the tribe of those affected by gun violence.
The girls have plans to paddleboard and swim with the dolphins between bonding with Douglas students, though not all of their plans will pan out. They’ll see the doors of Pulse nightclub, where the friend they met online fled from the shooting in 2016. They’ll look at the fences surrounding the school buildings of students in Parkland who taught them how to fight for change.
They want to feel heard. With a larger number of victims, Douglas students gained a larger platform. Jaxon hopes that if they’re in the place everyone knows about, they can find their voices. Then people will know Great Mills, too. People moved on from their shooting much quicker than most, the girls say, because only one victim died. It’s brushed off as “‘just domestic violence” or not a “real” school shooting.
Nobody cares about Great Mills, and I hate that.
Jaxon O'Mara, Great Mills High School senior
For a while after the GoFundMe for the trip went up, Jaxon and Mollie were flooded with requests from TV and radio stations. Now that the trip has started, the requests are pouring in again and Jaxon has said yes to every one.
“Nobody cares about Great Mills, and I hate that,” Jaxon says after one of her several daily phone interviews. “I want to give us as much attention as I can.”
To fuel their journey, the girls snack on handfuls of Goldfish from a 30-ounce carton, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, cola gummies, oatmeal pies and Cosmic Brownies. They suck down squeezable applesauce packs while talking about which students they hope to meet, especially those at the forefront of March for Our Lives. They take calls from TV and radio stations every few hours while chugging Dr. Pepper, or from the parking lots of fast-food chains.
When they’re not taking media calls, they’re messaging or talking with other student activists or political organizations.
Jaxon is part of Students for Safer Maryland, March for Our Lives DMV and Students Demand Action. She’s planning an Occupy the Capital Weekend and a Student Summit in D.C. this October. She’s on five Slack message channels for different activist groups, and Mollie is on three. They’re using multiple messaging apps, Twitter and Instagram direct messages, and multiple group texts to keep up with other activists and shooting survivors across the nation.
“If I’m not doing something to try to help, I feel useless,” Jaxon says, hands locked on the steering wheel.
Mollie can’t drive — after her parents wouldn’t let her get her learner’s permit she lost interest — so after Jaxon drives for a couple hours, I take the wheel.
It’s no coincidence that I’m on this trip. The students were flocked with media requests when their GoFundMe went up, but I was the only reporter invited. I am a mass shooting survivor.
I was in The Capital newsroom when a man blasted in with a shotgun and killed five of my colleagues on June 28.
A few weeks later, Jaxon and Mollie invited me to speak at a rally they held in Annapolis. Like them, I wanted to make sure my voice was heard by my representatives. We stood together in the pouring rain, a sea of umbrellas that sticky July day, and demanded change.
On this trip, I’m a survivor but not an activist. I’m a journalist.
I shove Sour Patch watermelons in my mouth and try not to drive too far over the 70 mph speed limit. We exchange stories about awkward encounters when you have to tell people your school or newsroom is that place where a shooting happened.
Jaxon wasn’t in school the day Jaelynn was shot. She was at home recovering from surgery when she got texts from her friends asking if she was safe, to turn off the lights in her classroom and hide. She turned on the news and saw that her school was on lockdown and that two students had been shot.
Mollie was in math class when she heard screams, people running and the front doors of the school slamming open. If she hadn’t put off giving her economics teacher a paper that day, she said she would have been in the hallway the shooter walked down after he shot Jaelynn, right before he shot himself.
While on lockdown, she opened the direct messages on her Twitter and Instagram to answer questions from reporters. That’s when she also started messaging with Parkland students.
There’s no better therapy than being able to see and hug the people who understand what you’re going through the most.
While she waited for her parents for almost four hours at the reunification center in the school technology building, she got a message from Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior Justin Benson.
“I have heard about what happened at your school. I don’t know if it’s over yet or if you’re safe but just know you are not alone and all of us here are supporting you and your fellow students,” he wrote, adding his phone number and Snapchat username.
In a few days, Mollie and Jaxon will be able to hug Justin and talk to him face-to-face instead of over messaging or Facetime. They’ll paint rocks with other Douglas students so the Great Mills students have reminders of Parkland for their school. Douglas students will keep reminders of Great Mills in their memorial garden.
In every interview, the girls are asked why they’re doing this. Jaxon has one response: “There’s no better therapy than being able to see and hug the people who understand what you’re going through the most.”
A pit stop at Pulse
Before getting to Parkland, the girls have a stop planned in Orlando to see the Pulse nightclub memorial. They say seeing the memorial means even more to them now that they’ve connected with a Pulse survivor, Brandon Wolf, on Twitter.
“We asked him to come, but he’s 30 and has a job,” Mollie laughs.
As the “Welcome to Orlando” sign passes, Jaxon turns to Mollie and says, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to cry … I’m going to cry, I just know it.” She says this at least a few times until they reach the memorial.
Nicole Parker, community outreach coordinator for the onePULSE foundation, gives them a tour of the temporary memorial. As a trans woman, she says Pulse was the first place she really felt safe. She lost two friends in the shooting.
Jaxon introduces the girls as being from Great Mills, where a school shooting happened in March, and me as a reporter from the paper where there was a shooting in June.
“Every time I hear about another shooting, I think, ‘When is it going to be enough? Was Orlando not enough? Was Parkland not enough?’ It just rips your heart out,” she says.
The memorial mostly consists of a wall of curated photos of the victims. Songs from Michael Bublé, Norah Jones and OneRepublic play softly from speakers built into the wall. There are glass windows in certain parts that show the club on the other side, where a waterfall fountain was reconstructed after it was destroyed in the shooting and, later, the back doors the FBI breached to rescue victims from the bathrooms on the other side.
A few families are there, but Parker says the peak hour for the memorial is 2 a.m. Families like to sit for hours under the LED lights that circulate rainbow colors. Some will actually go out to another club and then visit Pulse when they’re done. It’s also certainly not as hot at that time.
Within a few minutes, Jaxon is in tears. She apologizes.
When is it going to be enough? Was Orlando not enough? Was Parkland not enough? It just rips your heart out.
Nicole Parker, OnePULSE coordinator
One of the windows in the photo wall looks at the names of the 49 dead engraved in stone. Parker calls them “our 49 angels.” Some families didn’t want their victims’ names on the wall, so they’re represented with doves. Parker says some families will never step foot at the memorial.
The numbers are different, but to Jaxon the situations are the same. No one should die in their school, nightclub, church, movie theater, newsroom or really anywhere because someone picked up a gun they should never have obtained.
Toward the end of the visit, after Jaxon and Mollie write “Great Mills stands with Pulse” and “Great Mills (heart)s Pulse” among thousands of signatures on the club’s sign and take pictures, a woman asks Jaxon where the front of the memorial starts. Jaxon said she didn’t know.
“Imagine just having fun and someone walks in,” the woman says.
Jaxon doesn’t know what to say and walks back to the car, choking up.
Jaxon says she’s done a lot of imagining. Almost every day she imagines what would have happened if she’d gotten out of bed 30 minutes earlier and gone to school — if she’d been there that day. She’s scared and Mollie is, too. Earlier on the trip, she told Jaxon she can’t decide if she wants to ask her parents for video editing software for her vlogging hobby or a bulletproof backpack for Christmas. She ruled out colleges she thought were more likely to have shootings.
“People don’t need to imagine sometimes,” Jaxon says in the car. There are three more hours of driving left to Parkland.
FRIDAY | ‘Stop, hey, what’s that sound’
The Mesmer sisters, Jaxon’s family and Great Mills teacher Costello have been waiting at the hotel near Douglas in Coral Springs.
Jaxon and Mollie cozied up with the Mesmers on Thursday night while three of Jaxon’s siblings, still toddlers, kept her mother awake in the room next door. Costello stays with her children in a room down the hall.
Friday, Jaxon and Mollie wake up early and head to a nearby park, where Jaxon is to be interviewed for a majority of the day by a documentary crew. She’ll be one of about 10 subjects of RisingUP, a project following the lives of student activists every four years.
The RisingUP crew has arranged for the rest of the Great Mills team to join Jaxon and Mollie at the park to hear a Douglas student give a debate speech on the shooting at his school.
Costello drives the Mesmers over to the park along with her 8-year-old daughter, Finley, and 15-year-old son, Jack. Costello’s husband is deployed in the Navy, so she’s been traveling with Finley and Jack to avoid being cooped up in the house all summer.
This is the first scheduled event in the trip Jaxon, Mollie, Jessie and Olivia embarked on to heal and feel heard. But they’re not quite sure what they’re getting into.
At the park, they’re greeted by Lauren Levine, the documentary crew director. As the students eat pineapple pizza, the Douglas student — 16-year-old Daniel Bishop — arrives with his mother. The humid 90-degree heat is blistering, even under the shade of the park’s gazebo.
Daniel was in the building next to where the shooting happened and says he heard the first shot. This was his third day of the new school year.
As the crew sets up his microphone, Daniel explains that his speech isn’t in the traditional debate format. It’s a theatrical interpretation of at least 10 works of literature and prose arguing the similarities between school zones and war zones. He’ll be performing it at National Speech and Debate competitions.
Jaxon, Mollie, Olivia, Jessie and Costello are instructed to sit on a bench in front of Daniel while the speech is being filmed. A boom bobs above his head and the camera is turned on him, but eyes are on the Great Mills crew as well. They’ve been posed to sit squished together on a park bench about 10 feet away from Daniel.
There are awkward smiles as he begins with words from George W. Bush’s address after 9/11 and performs the narratives of students combined with narratives of soldiers. He sings parts of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”
“Stop, hey, what’s that sound,” he coos.
Then, “There have been 1,777 mass shootings since Sandy Hook.”
He switches to a Southern accent for a part spoken by a soldier, then back to Buffalo Springfield.
“There's a man with a gun over there.”
As the performance becomes more graphic, the Great Mills crew becomes gradually stone-faced.
Daniel is also reading parts of his peers David and Lauren Hogg’s book “#NeverAgain,” their account of that day and the manifesto for the March for Our Lives movement, as well as parts of the book “I Survived a School Shooting: Why Did You Forget About Me?” by Didac Valencia. He’s re-enacting what it’s like to get shot and watch people get shot.
“There was blood in the stairs and blood in the hallway and blood in front of the building. And there were bodies being dragged …”
He shakes and yells, dramatically picking up his feet as he talks about stepping over dead bodies — something he hadn’t done, but what Parkland students had to do. “And going to war is one of the hardest challenges anyone can face,” he booms in his soldier’s accent.
These traumas may be new to a speech and debate audience, but they’re things these students already know too well.
Daniel voices a student screaming, “Oh God, tell my parents I love them.” He talks about a student seeing someone bleed out. And sitting in the humid heat listening to this speech, they found themselves feeling the same pain they were looking to heal.
When the performance is over, the group claps. Jaxon gets up and hugs Daniel. The documentary crew asks him to do some parts over again so they can film the Great Mills students’ reactions from behind him. He repeats some of those most graphic parts in his second take.
That night in the hotel, Jessie says she was uncomfortable and wanted to look away during the performance, but the documentary director told her to look straight at Daniel.
She says being posed to watch him for the documentary made her feel like a prop.
“No one cared about what we had to say. It was very much focused on Jaxon,” she says. “We were kind of being exploited in that part.”
Jessie hasn’t talked about the days surrounding Jaelynn’s death entirely with anyone, mostly because no one’s ever asked. As we sit, legs crossed on each of the double beds facing each other, she starts to shake.
Jessie was Jaelynn’s best friend. They’d swam in the same lane together since they were 8 years old, and continued to do so for Great Mills. Jessie drove her and Olivia to school every day.
She remembers taking Jaelynn to school early that day and said the shooter used to sit and wait to see them go in. If they hadn’t gotten there early, Jessie said he might have tried to confront her in the parking lot. She said they walked in together and, when it was time for them to go to each of their classrooms, Jaelynn stood there and looked at her for a few seconds.
She remembers feeling odd and that she was going to ask her about it at lunch. Jessie walked into band class and was unpacking her instrument when a kid said: “Someone has a gun in the school.”
Lockdown started, and Olivia texted Jessie saying she saw Jaelynn fall down.
She talks about showing up at the hospital with flowers, thinking Jaelynn was going to be OK. She describes how inhuman Jaelynn looked with the bandage over her head, her hair clumped red and purple from the blood, her eyes and face bulging and pale.
Over the next couple of days, the Mesmers talked to Jaelynn while her mom washed her hair, helped baptize her with a local pastor and finally said goodbye before she was taken off life support.
Jessie shakes harder but insists on pushing through the story.
Jaelynn’s was Jessie’s first funeral. A month later at the same firehouse, Jessie wore the dress Jaelynn was going to buy for prom. Where family, friends and classmates had cried in front of her open casket, students partied as much as they could in dresses and tuxes in the velvet masquerade theme.
She said the principal wouldn’t let them have any reminders of Jaelynn there, not even teal decorations (her favorite color). When Jaelynn’s favorite song came on, the whole firehouse went nuts and danced for her.
Jessie remembers going back to school a week after the shooting and seeing blood still splattered on one of the doors. Some teachers were sensitive, and some just went on with business as usual. Some of her friends have drifted. Some kids at the school and surrounding schools have taken advantage of the event or lie about knowing Jaelynn, she says.
She still doesn't sleep much.
At home, she needs a lamp to project stars on her bedroom ceiling. She can’t sleep with the door open, and she keeps a basket propped in front of it so she can hear anyone trying to come in.
She knows she won’t sleep much either tonight, so she goes down to the lobby and gets some hot chocolate. She curls up in a cozy chair, pulls out her phone and begins to scroll through all her favorite pictures of Jaelynn.
SATURDAY | Trading rocks, traumas
“Did you hear about the shooting in Palm Beach?”
It’s 9:30 a.m. and the Florida heat is already sweltering. Jaxon is back at the wheel of the burnt-orange Pontiac, air conditioning blasting, driving with Mollie to a Douglas student’s house just a few minutes from the hotel.
Jaxon grips the wheel and looks in the rear-view mirror as she asks the question.
“Did you know one of the people shot was the parent of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivor? She tweeted about it.”
Mollie nods her head.
“I don’t know how the world is going to work if these people survive and then their parents get shot,” Jaxon says. The car is silent for a few seconds until Jaxon starts screaming at the top of her lungs.
“I’M. SO. EXCITED,” she shouts while clapping at the wheel. “I’M SO FRICKIN’ EXCITED.”
She and Mollie start discussing which students might be there, especially which students from the March for Our Lives tour.
This is the meeting they made the trip for — the official meeting of Great Mills and Marjory Stoneman Douglas students. Paint markers and rocks are loaded up in the back, along with two March for Our Lives clipboards Jaxon says she and Mollie forgot to return while registering voters at a D.C. event.
The plan is for the students to paint rocks together and exchange them. Half the rocks will be kept at a memorial garden where 17 trees have been planted off campus for those lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Jaxon and Mollie will take the other half to the Great Mills campus.
The Douglas student’s house is in a gated neighborhood, so once Jaxon’s GPS takes her to the back gate she has to follow directions she’s been texted to reach the front gate. There, a guard checks her in.
“We’re here to see the … Catanias?” Jaxon giggles nervously. “We’re here for a thing with Douglas students.”
The guard opens the gate. As Jaxon drives through, she and Mollie “ooh” and “ahh” at the massive Spanish colonial-inspired homes with lush landscaping.
“This is nothing like Great Mills,” Mollie giggles.
Karla Catania, mother of junior Rachel, opens the door for the girls. They’re greeted by a pony-sized Goldendoodle, taken through the inside pool lounge area and into the house.
In the kitchen, a few students all wearing burgundy “#MSDstrong” shirts mingle with Broward County teacher Debby Miller. Sodas and cookies are set out next to a stone figurine of a pig with a chef’s hat holding a chalkboard sign that says “Welcome Great Mills.” Miller is wearing a bright orange shirt that reads, “I teach the generation that will save us all. Gun control now.”
Jaclyn Corin, Lauren Hogg and Adam Alhanti — the students who have been touring with March for Our Lives — enter after about 25 other Douglas students.
They take turns working on the rocks and talking in the living room. The house is filled with chatter, laughter and the clacking of paint pens being shaken. At noon, six cheese pizzas come and the students descend on them and huddle up in groups to eat.
A boom from the documentary crew hovers over the students as they work on their rock creations while a cameraman circles the table.
“Shout out to my therapist, Lauren!” bubbly 17-year-old Douglas senior Cate Allen shouts and points into the lens.
Jaclyn looks at the boom and rolls her eyes.
“I’m so tired of this,” she says to Jaxon.
Jaclyn gets up and tells the documentary director not to use audio of her since she’s under a strict media contract.
The students paint rocks with the initials “GMHS” and “MSD” together — in green and yellow for Great Mills and red for Douglas. A few students also paint rocks for the Capital Gazette staff.
Douglas senior Jack Macleod paints a fist-sized rock. One of the three sides says “CG Press On” in blue with a heart, one says “#MSDstrong 2-14-18” with red polka dots, one says “GMHS Hornet Proud” with green polka dots.
Don’t tell me when I drop a textbook that you’re scared. You don’t know what it sounded like.
Cate Allen, Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior
He talks with Jaxon and Mollie about how it feels when people say they need to “move on,” how it feels to see memorials taken down, and the pros and cons of AP classes.
These are the students who heard the sounds of killing while locked in their classrooms. They ran from their campus, some looking back to see one of the dead, others dropping their backpacks among the flowers, balloons and valentines scattered across the ground.
“It was dead silent. All you heard was feet pounding on the sidewalk and people panting,” Justin Benson recalls.
He’s the first Douglas student Mollie got a message from while on lockdown at Great Mills. He tells the group he plucked glass from his shoes when he got home after the Douglas shooting and watched the clip CNN caught of him having a panic attack.
They talk about the new class of freshmen, and what the first few days at Douglas have been like with them.
“Don’t even get me started,” Cate says, rolling her eyes. “Don’t tell me when I drop a textbook that you’re scared. You don’t know what it sounded like.”
Justin says he has to warn the new students about triggering behavior.
“We have to tell them not to purposefully make loud bangs, not to scream without reason, not to run like they’re running away from something,” he says. “They need to know there are certain things that set us off. We have to teach them.”
Olivia and Jessie keep to one corner of the table, painting rocks for Jaelynn with Costello’s daughter, Finley. Jessie recreates a picture of her hugging Jaelynn at swim practice. A few say, “Jaelynn strong.”
With black paint marker, Jessie gives herself the tattoo she wants on her wrist: a cursive swooping lowercase “j” and uppercase “J” linked together.
As the students paint, Mitch and Anika Dworet join the adults talking in the kitchen. Their son, Nick, was one of the four seniors killed on Feb. 14, a week after he signed for a full swimming scholarship to the University of Indianapolis. Their other son, 15-year-old Alexander, was injured when a bullet grazed his head.
Mitch has this way of looking at you, lips pursed, eyes gleaming, saying, “I know.” He nods as he says it, and you know he can feel all of your pain. You feel some of his, too, and his hope and pride for these students. When he says those two words, it’s hard not to crumble — even as teenagers paint rocks, eat pizza and wrestle with a puppy all around you.
He introduces himself to the Mesmers, and they embrace. As a swimmer, he knows how hard it is to get back in the pool when you lose someone you loved so much. The Dworets are perhaps the only people in the room, the only people they’ve met on this trip, who share the feeling of missing such a big piece of themselves. They tell Jessie and Olivia how passionate Nick was about swimming, how he would write the time he was striving for over and over again in his math notebook.
After talking with the Dworets, the documentary crew asks the girls to step outside for an interview.
Later, Jessie and Olivia would say these were the first moments they actually felt seen and heard since they came to Florida.
Back at the hotel, Jaxon shows off the “I love Parkland” car magnet she was just given.
“I’m going to glue it on my car so it can never come off,” she says, smiling.
SUNDAY | Reopening old wounds
In the classroom of the Coral Springs Parkland Firehouse, the Great Mills group reunite with some Parkland parents and students from the rock painting, along with the documentary crew.
They’re here for Stop the Bleed training, offered for free by the fire department after learning that the Great Mills students would be making the trip to their city.
These students and their parents are here because they’ve heard about school shooting situations in which there’s only one teacher with first-aid training who has to try and help multiple wounded students.
They don’t want anyone to have to choose who to save.
When it’s over after a couple hours, Jaxon, Mollie, Jessie and Olivia all look tired. They talk about how the slideshow was so graphic that none of them could watch.
“I won’t process it for a couple of days,” Douglas senior Lizzie Eaton says.
Costello thought the training wouldn’t bother her as a first responder. Even though she’s traumatized from trying to save Jaelynn, she’s taught countless CPR classes similar to this. When they began a section on tourniquets, she said she flashed back to the panic of police and administrators all standing around her and yelling in the hallway as she tried to help Jaelynn and stop the bleed of the other student shot at the same time.
“You go from praying she’s going to be OK, to praying she won’t suffer, to praying that her parents make it in time to say goodbye,” Costello said later. “No one should go through that.”
During the training, she felt like crying and wanted to leave, but stayed so the documentary crew wouldn’t see her reaction.
You go from praying she’s going to be OK, to praying she won’t suffer, to praying that her parents make it in time to say goodbye.
Jenna Costello, Great Mills High School teacher
This trip has been harder than healing for her — an unfortunate end to what she calls a “summer from hell.”
Before she was about to leave for the trip, she was told she’ll be transferred out of Great Mills next school year. While the students painted rocks, she got a call with news that her cousin had died suddenly.
At several points in the trip she began to take Jessie and Olivia out on her own, saying she didn’t want them cooped up.
On the ride to the training, Jaxon and Mollie listened to “Hamilton” to get pumped up, but the ride back to the hotel afterward is quiet. Jaxon’s eyelids fall. She looks tired and a little sad.
A long ride home, back to school
On the way home, Jaxon and Jessie took turns driving while Olivia and Mollie curled up together in the back. They stopped for a college visit for Jessie at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona.
The girls snacked on Goldfish, yogurt-covered pretzels and chips as they talked about gun reform and mental health. Jaxon sipped Dr. Pepper and Jessie drank coffee as they discussed their beliefs — Jaxon is not religious, Mollie is Southern Baptist and the Mesmers are Catholic — and how politics fit into their faith.
Olivia said she wanted to join Jaxon and Mollie in some of their gun reform events. She agreed with the girls on the need for better background checks, but she’s hesitant about regulation. She and Jessie are more inspired to advocate for mental health and domestic violence awareness.
No one brought up the trip.
You can’t plan or orchestrate healing.
Olivia Mesmer, Great Mills High School junior
“I feel like it would hurt if we did,” Olivia said. “The trip was kind of emotionally draining and set us more back than forward. There were really high expectations. You can’t plan or orchestrate healing.”
“I think it kind of reopened old wounds,” Jessie added.
The girls may not feel the same way about the trip — Jaxon and Mollie both called the trip a success, even with its ups and downs — but they do all share one memory from the ride home: screaming along to “Hamilton.”
Mollie moved into her dorm for her freshman year at Hollins University in Virginia on Aug. 25. Starting college is exciting, but she also feels weird and sad because she’s bringing the fear of another shooting with her to the new campus. But she also carries the strength of the bond she shares with Parkland survivors.
Tuesday was the first day back at Great Mills for Jaxon, Jessie and Olivia. They walked the freshly painted hallways haunted by last year. For Jessie and Olivia, every part of their day — driving to school, eating lunch, diving in for swim team — will feel empty without Jaelynn.
For Jaxon, the trip to Florida was what she needed to start her senior year at Great Mills. She comes back feeling refreshed and strong, knowing that when things get hard, the friends she just hugged and painted rocks with are just a call or message away.
She’s found her tribe.