PARKLAND, Fla. >> Brooke Harrison, 14, was still in a deep sleep when her mother knocked on her door and hugged her awake at 6:45 this morning.
“You need to get up,” she told her daughter. “You don’t want to be late for school today.”
It was the first day of class for Brooke and her classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School since a mass shooting that killed 17 and forever upended thousands of lives across this South Florida suburb two weeks ago.
It had been two weeks of nightmares, funerals, flashbacks, vigils and grief counseling since the attack. But Brooke felt ready.
She had watched gunfire explode through her honors English class that Feb. 14 afternoon as she and her classmates worked on an essay about hardship and education. Three students from her class alone were killed. She had heard their last breaths, crawled through glass and put pressure on a wounded student’s torso before escaping through the school parking lot and running as fast as she could to reach her home in a subdivision lined by coconut palms.
Now, like many other Stoneman Douglas High students, Brooke just wanted to return to a routine. She wanted to see her friends and reclaim her school, which is ringed by police officers and garlanded by fading memorial flowers.
She was nervous, and she worried she would cry when she walked through the courtyard where she would sometimes eat lunch with Alaina Petty, who was killed in her classroom. Others said they dreaded confronting so many empty seats, or seeing the art project that a slain friend would never finish.
“I just hope she’s going to be OK being there all day,” Brooke’s mother, Denise, said as she made coffee, toast and bacon for breakfast. “That it’s not traumatic to be there.”
But first, Brooke needed her mother to help unknot a pair of gray Nikes.
“I have no strength,” she said as she walked into the kitchen, smiling and still wearing the same burgundy Stoneman Douglas shirt from the day before.
The bloodied shoes that Brooke had worn the day of the shooting had been taken away as evidence. Her favorite sweater was also seized. Her black backpack now has a bullet hole in the bottom, from one of the AR-15 rifle rounds that filled her English class with a choking haze and killed Alex Schachter, Alyssa Alhadeff and Alaina before her eyes there in room 1216.
So on Wednesday, Brooke went back to school carrying little more than her phone and a small bracelet made by students that said “ALAINA.”
The shortened school day started with fourth period, the class where everything had shattered. For 30 minutes, the students reunited with the classmates and teachers who had huddled with them in closets and corners. They spent 24 minutes in each of their other classes and were done by 11:40 a.m. Robert W. Runcie, the Broward schools superintendent, said about 95 percent of the student body of 3,293 had returned.
There were extra counselors and therapy dogs on hand, and it will be days — if not weeks — before students return to their regular lessons. The school’s principal, Ty Thompson, said on Twitter that the focus of the week would be on healing, and classes are being dismissed at 11:40 a.m. for the rest of the week in an effort to let the students acclimate to being back.
“There is no need for backpacks,” he wrote. “Come ready to start the healing process and #RECLAIM THE NEST.”
Back at home that morning, it was 7:23 a.m. Time for Brooke to go.
“Are we ready?” Harrison asked.
As they skimmed through the neighborhood in a white Hyundai SUV, past driveway basketball hoops, cyclists and joggers, Harrison remembered how she had driven the same route two weeks earlier to find Brooke after the shooting.
Today, traffic around the school slowed to a crawl as Brooke and her mother drew close. They passed heavily armed police officers and television cameras. Students walked through a colonnade of police officers from nearby cities and teachers from their old middle and elementary schools who waved signs of support.
They pulled into a circular driveway, near a banner that declared “WELCOME EAGLES” — their school mascot. Inside, over the course of this half-day, there would be hugs and joyful reunions laced with sadness and loss. Some students would break down crying as they said the Pledge of Allegiance. Others would wipe away tears when they heard the alma mater. They would compare their memories, nuzzle therapy dogs and share their final text messages from now-absent friends.
“We were just so happy to see each other,” Brooke would say.
But not quite yet. Brooke and her mother quickly hugged, kissed and said I love you. And then the 14-year-old freshman who dreams about one day whirling across the globe as a travel journalist hopped out of her mom’s car, threaded her way past a sheriff’s officer and joined the river of children in burgundy T-shirts making their way back in.