WASHINGTON — On Feb. 14, Joey Wong was in class at Pace University in New York City when news of a school shooting started to pour in on social media.
“My first, initial reaction was denial,” Wong told HuffPost this week. “‘This can’t be real. This is probably, you know, there’s possibly another school, similar to mine.’”
Wong, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas High School last year, stopped paying attention to class and stayed glued to his phone. He began contacting his friends and former high school classmates, and, soon, “the denial faded away.” The fact that a shooting had occurred at his alma mater “became reality,” he said.
He heard from mutual friends that a teammate on the school’s swim team, Nick Dworet, was missing. Later, he would hear that Dworet, who would have turned 18 on Saturday, was among the 17 confirmed victims of the shooting.
Monet McFarlane, a 2016 Douglas graduate who also now attends Pace, was on her way to shop for a Valentine’s Day outfit, when she checked a group chat from her family in Florida.
“They were all in there saying, ‘Douglas got shot up,’ and I thought it was a mistake because it’s Parkland, Florida. We don’t get ‘shot up,’” she said. Once reality set in, she felt a sense of “helplessness, just being so far away.”
A few days later, they flew back to Parkland, wanting to be near their friends, some of whom were already involved in planning vigils and protests. Unlike Wong and McFarlane, most of their friends stayed in Florida for college. Watching the students mobilize local protests, Wong said that he felt inspired to become active in New York.
“Being that outlier, I was thinking to myself, not many people know what Douglas is or where it was, or what’s it like?” Wong said. “I came back with a mission, basically — a mission to get things organized, to get New York City involved.”
He joined Facebook groups formed for planning events related to the shooting, connecting with organizers and other Douglas alums in the city to plan New York’s version of the March For Our Lives.
People I know were killed, and people I know suffer now from PTSD. I can’t have a normal life. It makes me want to be politically active. I can’t not be politically active. In my opinion, I’d be disrespecting all of those people." Joey Wong
But as it became clear that a group of students from New York City were planning to go to D.C., Wong knew he had to go “where, I think, the most impact will be.” He wanted to rejoin his friends and former classmates, like water polo teammate Charles Lambeth, who attends nearby Palm Beach State College.
The day of the shooting, Lambeth immediately got in his car, “speeding back to school,” to find his close friends and a cousin who still attends Douglas — and, according to Lambeth, was spared from the shooting after assistant football coach Aaron Feis heroically shielded her and other students. Feis died in the attack.
Since the shooting, Lambeth has frequently returned to the school.
“All we can do is cry and be there together,” he said. “Eventually, there [aren’t] enough tears to continue going.”
On Saturday, the three traveled together to the March For Our Lives to join the large contingent of Douglas students, teachers and alumni in Washington, D.C.
Moving forward, McFarlane, who said that she still has a hard time processing the shooting, hopes “[to help] the community heal, even though I can’t be there, which is tough.”
Despite her physical distance, she has tried to be a sounding board for her friends in Parkland because “I understand when you’re a little bit removed from the situation, it’s easier to talk,” she said.
Wong, who says that he wasn’t politically active before the shooting, hopes to stay involved in activism, but “not necessarily be as hands-on with organizing marches and events.”
He said that the aftermath of the shooting and his newfound activism made it somewhat difficult to juggle his classes and college life, describing how he had to email his teachers to explain why he had to miss class.
“No student should have to tell their teacher, ‘My school was just shot up. Please understand my absence,’” he said.
But ever since the shooting, he hopes to stay involved in other ways, or at least be “more aware” of political and social issues.
“People I know were killed, and people I know suffer now from PTSD. I can’t have a normal life. It makes me want to be politically active. I can’t not be politically active. In my opinion, I’d be disrespecting all of those people,” he said. “It’s something you can’t really turn off anymore.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that McFarlane participated in water polo.