In long braids and oversized dark rimmed glasses, Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting survivor Aalayah Eastmond walked up to the podium and told her story, quickly and unfettered.
“It was a normal day and unfortunately, I lost two people in my class and six were hit,” she said at a recent news conference in Washington, D.C. She had just turned 17 that day. “I was on the wrong side of the class and no student should have to cover themselves with a deceased classmate to survive. But I was that student.”
Eastmond was studying Holocaust history during fourth period class when the gunman started shooting into her classroom on Feb. 14.
Her voice cracked. “It’s been 36 days and nothing’s happened. Nothing’s changed. We have to move fast,” she said about advocating for common sense gun laws.
Standing by her side was fellow student and advocate David Hogg. He was in environmental science just before he heard the gunshots. He joined a crowd of students fleeing, only to turn back around and join more students in a small room. Like many others, it was only later that he realized the extent of the tragedy.
When Hogg asked to involve other Marjory Stoneman Douglas students in the movement, Eastmond jumped at the opportunity.
“We can’t only focus on school shootings. Urban and low-income communities have always been hit with gun violence,” she said. “I lost my uncle due to gun violence in Brooklyn 15 years ago. And nothing has changed. Columbine happened, nothing changed. Sandy Hook happened, nothing changed. Parkland happened. Nothing changed.”
On Saturday, Eastmond and Hogg will join over half a million marchers to speak out about gun violence at the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C.
“All of this has been like stretching before a big marathon,” Hogg told The Daily Beast. The march, he said, is just the beginning. Yet before the march has even started, the fatigue is evident. Hogg rubs his eyes a few times during the news conference. Eastmond’s mother, Stacey-Ann Llewellyn consoles her daughter.
“It can be emotional at times but sometimes you just have to explain it to people so they understand the impact,” said Eastmond.“It’s disturbing to me to think back to these things but what’s more disturbing to me is when I visited Thurgood Marshall High School [in Washington, D.C.] and I can see the discrimination and how these people are so disproportionately affected by not having their voices heard. The kids that I talked to, they live through it every fucking day,” said Hogg.
“A lot of people think the march is it and it’s the end,” Eastmond said. “The march is just the start. We will fight for this until change happens. You guys, I don’t want to hear about it anymore. You fix it.” Eastmond sounds angry, because she is.
“I’m very angry,” she said. “It just makes me angry because it’s happening over and over again and nothing is changing. It makes me want to fight harder.”
Her mother says that Eastmond, who has always been mature and nurturing for her age, would like to get help but isn’t sure she feels comfortable with the counseling the school is offering. She wants her privacy and the ability to connect with a therapist, her mother said, but the copay from their private insurance is too great.
When the gunman began shooting into her classroom and shot fellow student Nicholas Dworet, 17, an accomplished swimmer, he fell on top of her. She just pretended to be dead after that.
She didn’t know at first how his family would feel talking about it, especially that she had to hide behind his body.
“I still feel that way,” she said. “I only spoke to the family once. They were very happy to see me. But no, I wish I could talk to them more and make sure they are doing alright.”
Eastmond, who lives with her single mother and a dog in Coral Springs, a town over from Parkland, says the kind of help she and her classmates need is therapy. Since the tragedy, the fourth period class has become very tight-knit.
“Just talking about it helps. And not just repeating the same things over again and asking us the same questions over and over again,” she said.
It took Eastmond some time to feel okay talking about it. She wasn’t ready as quickly as the #NeverAgain movement was. But then again, as far as she knows, they weren’t in the building when the shooting happened, she said.
Hogg was in a building next to the freshmen building where the massacre took place.
“My fourth period class and everyone that was in the building at the time, we all feel the exact same,” she said. “They did not see any dead bodies that I know of.”
“That’s why they were able to speak so quickly to the media immediately, and the ones that were impacted greatly and seen it firsthand were not,” she said.
Eastmond said she met Hogg for the first time two days before the march. “I don’t know [any of the #NeverAgain advocates] at all,” she said.
“I know some people are bitter,” she said. “I’m not really bitter. I’m just doing it for change,” she said.
“I know a lot of kids are willing to talk about it. They want their voices heard.”
Eastmond hopes that schools will change their security measures as well. “I went to school yesterday and I was late. I walked right through the office. Who knows, I could have been walking in with another Nicolas Cruz. They didn’t check my ID or my bag and I walked right through. We have to do something. This cannot happen again,” she said.
On Saturday, she will be marching for Dworet, she said. It would have been his 18th birthday.