A Year Later, Parkland Students Are Still Navigating Their Trauma
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Think back to last year and the days after the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. All over the news were these young people were talking about gun policy, calling for reforms and grieving the friends they lost all in front of a national audience. One of them was Sam Zeif.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SAM ZEIF: How do we not stop this after Columbine, after Sandy Hook? I'm sitting with a mother that lost her son. It's still happening.
KELLY: That was from a roundtable with President Trump on live TV. One of Sam Zeif's best friends, Joaquin Oliver, was killed in Parkland. His friends called him Guac.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
NPR has followed Zeif from that moment at the White House to the March for Our Lives last spring, and now he's in college at the University of Central Florida. And as the first anniversary of the shooting approaches, NPR's Sam Gringlas went to Orlando to see how Zeif is making his way through freshman year.
ZEIF: Yeah. I love it here, honestly.
SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Sam Zeif is 18 now. He drives around campus in a white Acura with an engine that revs like a muscle car.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)
GRINGLAS: He's studying hospitality management. And today, he's driving to a morning class.
ZEIF: Encountering the humanities. It's similar to classes like sociology and psychology...
GRINGLAS: Sam's tall and lanky. He played high school basketball, though he hasn't been on the court in a while. Back during the March for Our Lives, he had bleached bangs in memory of Guac. That's all grown out now. He's still got his goatee.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: So there are a few different things that I'd like to...
GRINGLAS: In class, he has his laptop up. He's showing me pictures from a summer trip to Europe with his girlfriend, Maddie.
ZEIF: We rented a ATV and did the whole island in like a day and a half.
GRINGLAS: After class, we walk through this big pedestrian green on campus. Kids are whizzing by on skateboards, posted up in hammocks slung from palm trees. UCF is a big school, almost 70,000 students. At the same time, it seems like Parkland kids are everywhere.
ZEIF: How you doing, Amanda? She's from Douglas. See? Just like that.
GRINGLAS: The day I arrive, it seems like everyone's talking about this one story in the news.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You heard what happened recently though with the guy with the bump stock?
ZEIF: Yeah. Yeah. Literally - did you hear about that?
GRINGLAS: Campus police had just arrested an engineering student who'd been carrying around a modified AR-15 in the back of his car - a reminder, Sam says, that what happened in Parkland could happen here too.
ZEIF: I don't really feel safe anywhere, especially here with all these kids. I won't feel safe anywhere, I don't think, ever.
GRINGLAS: On top of that, Guac and Sam were both planning to be at this school, and Sam notices that absence all the time.
ZEIF: I've always said like, I don't need to go to a therapist because I talk to my friends. But I still have so much, like, racing around in my mind about it.
GRINGLAS: He's thinking maybe he does need therapy, though he hasn't seen anyone yet. We take a break. Sam grabs a bagel for lunch...
ZEIF: Dude, I seriously have so much extra lox.
GRINGLAS: ...Skips computer lab, goes to sociology class. Then he gives his friend from the Stoneman Douglas basketball team a ride home. His name is Sam Vecchio. We're riding past strip malls back to Sam's off-campus apartment complex. And from the backseat, Sam Vecchio passes up his phone. He got one of those Snapchat notifications with a memory. It's a photo of Guac in the locker room grinning at the camera.
SAM VECCHIO: Saying like, every day, new memories pop up. It's just...
GRINGLAS: The surprise reminders are painful, but it's not like they don't want to remember. Many of them even have tattoos.
VECCHIO: His initials and his birthday.
ZEIF: You and Cole (ph) and Dill (ph) have like my favorite ones.
VECCHIO: This isn't coming off, like, carrying him with me. He's on my body.
GRINGLAS: Suddenly, Sam Vecchio is talking about the aftermath of the shooting.
VECCHIO: When everything happened, it was good that we were all hanging around each other. It was like our grieving process. Like, we needed to be with each other. We don't want to be alone.
GRINGLAS: We drop him off at his place.
GRINGLAS: Sam Zeif tells me he's never heard his friend open up like that.
ZEIF: A lot of guys, like, you know how it is. Like, a lot of guys don't talk about their feelings. So, like, it's hard for them to talk about something so strong in their life.
GRINGLAS: Sam lives with three roommates, two he knew back in Parkland. His longtime girlfriend Maddie Marinkovich goes here, too. They've got two little dogs.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING, GROWLING)
GRINGLAS: It's nice being with people who all knew Guac. Of course, they're meeting new people all the time, and that can be hard. Like the other week at a party, a girl kept asking Sam why he looks so familiar.
ZEIF: And I'm, like, I don't know. I don't think we've ever met before. She's like, no, you're Guac's friend.
GRINGLAS: She'd seen him on the news. He's done a lot of TV interviews, and so he's recognizable.
ZEIF: I just said, yeah, that's me.
GRINGLAS: He broke down and had to leave. At home, though, the friends mostly try to keep things light.
MADDIE MARINKOVICH: What is it?
ZEIF: I got one so far.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One, one, one, one, one.
GRINGLAS: They play online trivia, go dancing at this 18-and-up club nearby. They don't talk every day about the trauma they've gone through together, but each person you pull aside is navigating their grief differently.
MARINKOVICH: You have to try to distract yourself so it doesn't eat you alive.
GRINGLAS: That's how Maddie deals with Guac's death. She says it was a different story for Sam, and that was hard on their relationship.
MARINKOVICH: I mean, he just could not take his mind off of it. That's the only thing he thought about, and it was upsetting me because I saw him so upset. But eventually, like, he understood, and we made it work.
GRINGLAS: Everyone is dreading Valentine's Day - the anniversary.
COLE SUMNER: You know, it's just kind of going to suck for a lot of us because we're going to see everybody trying to be happy and, you know, being romantic on that day. And it'll just - that day will really never be the same for any of us.
GRINGLAS: That's another friend from home, Cole Sumner. Cole knew Guac since they were 5 years old.
SUMNER: Some days are better than others, and sometimes it just eats at you kind of all day. And, you know, you just - you build up, and you get mad, and you get frustrated, and you get sad all at once. That's usually when I call my mom, and she calms me down. And that's, you know, that's when she cries too a little bit sometimes but, you know, usually ends up making both of us feel a little bit better.
GRINGLAS: When Joaquin Oliver was killed, that one death upended dozens of lives. To cope, Cole calls his mom, Maddie tries to keep her mind off it, Sam Vecchio doesn't really talk about it, and Sam Zeif can't stop talking about it. He even talks to Guac when he's alone.
ZEIF: I just ask him, like, how he's doing. And if I need guidance on something, I ask for a sign.
GRINGLAS: Sam is also still grappling with being a public figure. For one, he wonders whether his admission to college here hinged on that.
ZEIF: I probably wouldn't be at UCF, to be honest, if I didn't go to the White House and stuff. I think about that a lot.
GRINGLAS: Does that hurt to think about, you got this good thing out of this really bad thing?
ZEIF: Yeah, it really does. But, I mean, I also think about it, and I wouldn't - like, I would trade anything to go back again and not have this happen, trade anything. I don't care if I don't go to school here or nothing.
GRINGLAS: Sometimes, when he's really missing Guac, he scrolls through old pictures on his phone - Guac chugging sake at a fancy restaurant.
GRINGLAS: There he is jumping in a fountain, in sweatpants dancing in his bedroom...
ZEIF: He's just a angel.
GRINGLAS: ...A video belting out his favorite song in the car.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO KNOW WHAT LOVE IS")
FOREIGNER: (Singing) I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.
GRINGLAS: For a moment, it's like Guac's here again. Sam laughs, reliving it. And then the video ends.
ZEIF: It's crazy.
GRINGLAS: Sam snaps back to his bedroom, to his first year of college away from home, to a looming anniversary of a really horrible day. Sam Gringlas, NPR News, Orlando.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this report, we incorrectly referred to Cole Sumner as Cole Stanton.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.