Chewing Gum to Stay Numb: My Struggle With Leaving Behind the Survivor Label

October 19, 2020 / Leni Steinhardt

The term survivor sticks to me like gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe. It is the gross, melted piece of trash that you can't shake off. I try to lift my foot, but the pink goop brings it straight back down to the ground.

After the shooting at my high school back in 2018, many of my classmates used this term, forced upon us, to advocate for gun reform, to focus on personal healing and growth. However, for me, it’s a term that feels impossible to move on from. I feel stuck with it.

It is not a constant, every day feeling, but on the days where I least expect it, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and sadness. Gum does not expire.

I often miss the person I was before the shooting gave me this title, but I also think I have grown from it. Part of that was not really my choice. I was 16 when it happened. I'm 18 now. I feel like a different human being. The shooting forced me to grow up quicker than I could have ever imagined. I don’t have time to consume myself with mindless and stupid drama, I now know that there are more important issues in the world.

The best way that I could explain how I feel is comparable to the pop of a gum bubble. Its pop is only noticeable to the person blowing it. I still get nervous when I go to concerts, movie theaters, or malls. It is something I work on a daily basis to combat. I jump at the sounds of random fireworks, I feel suffocated in the pitch black, and I panic at the sound of sirens. You can’t blow a bubble and not expect it to pop.

My biggest frustration, however, is that people are too quick to label me a survivor. It is a label I do not personally identify with. Sure, I survived a high school shooting, a statement not many people are capable of saying, but I feel that everyone is a survivor of their own journey in some way. My brother just survived taking the SATs, my friend Olivia just survived her first breakup, and my friend Julia just survived her first day of college. It is a term that can be applied to just about every situation. Please, by no means force this label onto me with such a negative connotation.

If I could choose my own label to have after the traumatic experience, I would call myself optimistic. I strongly believe that the first step to changing the world is changing your own. Since the shooting, I have felt a strong need to seek the positives in my life instead of the negatives. I have tried to change my life for the better by living it to the fullest.  From small things, like saying “I love you” to my parents before I leave a room or big things like traveling the world, life is simply too short to focus so much on the negatives. Though it is tough to find the positives after a tragedy, I push myself and aim to seek it.

When I moved to Texas to go to school at UT, it was a strange transition. I had a clean start. No one knew my story, and no one knew where I was from. However,  I am no longer surrounded by people who share the same high school experience. I am instead surrounded by people whose high school life consisted of fun football games, pep rallies, proms, and homecoming stories. That is not what I remember when I reflect back on my high school experience.

In every new chapter I face, I fear that someone will bring the shooting up. In college, an inevitable question is, “where are you from?”  It is an innocent question that everyone asks, and they have no way of knowing what it does to me. It isn’t their fault. No one is to blame for the pit that immediately appears in my stomach upon their asking.

I don't want my peers at my new school to have any preconceived ideas of the person I am just based upon the question, “Where are you from?” I often just opt to share that I am from Florida. For those who are extra curious, perhaps with friends or family who live there, my answer is South Florida. Why should I be ashamed to admit where I am from? It is not my fault that I ended up in this situation.

Something to chew on: I do not want to hear the story about how you thought a shooter was at your school, but it turned out someone had just dropped a couple of books in the hallway and everyone ran. I wish that that was the case for me on that day. You do not want to join this survivors club. It is not a fun book club where they give out snacks and coffee for attending. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but I would not want to wish this feeling on anyone ever. ■

By: Leni Steinhardt

Graphics by: Caden Zips
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