by Jessica Shih
I was seven years old when I moved from White Plains, NY, to Coral Springs, FL, just a few miles south of a town called Parkland. For my parents, this move was more than a new house or circle of friends — it was quitting their cubicle jobs and putting all of their finances toward starting a hedge fund group with partners who happened to live in Florida. But for my seven-year-old self, this move meant leaving the few close friends I had worked so hard to make.
I’ve never been a particularly outgoing kid, so much so that for those first seven years of my life, I could count on one hand the number of friends I had. Consequently, it took me a couple of months to warm up to my new Florida classmates. Luckily, they were all very welcoming; in fact, just a few minutes after my teacher introduced me to the class, a classmate — who later on became my best friend — approached me.
“I heard you came from New York. Guess what, I used to live there too!” she said. “But I moved here when I was little, so I don’t remember what snow looks like. I wish it snowed here so I could touch it. Have you ever touched snow?”
I was too shy to say anything, so instead I nodded.
“You’re so lucky,” she said, grinning.
Then she waved as if to say goodbye and went back to the multi-step subtraction problem she had been previously working on.
And while others were just as curious about me and later came up to make comments like, “You seem very nice. Let’s dig a hole in the sand during recess,” something about the girl who approached me earlier that day intrigued me. The following day, I gathered up the courage to return the smile and wave to her. It wasn’t long before I started smiling and waving to my other classmates, too, despite the fact that I was in a multi-age class that consisted of both students in my grade and the one above mine. I was intimidated by them at first, but it’s true when people say that all Floridians are “sweet as Key Lime pie.” It turned out that I had nothing to worry about, as they were honestly the kindest, most inclusive group of eight-year-olds I’ve ever met. From hosting class-wide sleepovers complete with pancake breakfasts to offering to erase the pencil markings from my finalized science reports (I’d always write in pencil before tracing over in pen), there was never a moment when I’d doubt their genuity.
So while I was adjusting to school, my parents were flourishing in their new jobs. With a strong group dynamic and an even stronger economy, my parents soon had enough to purchase a million-dollar house a few blocks away. By the end of my second-grade year, we were happily settled into our new home.
For a while, my family did well. My sister, who never struggled to make friends, was always out on a play date. Even my parents, whose main focus was providing for their family, soon found that because they and their hedge-fund partners worked together for such long periods of time every day, they unintentionally formed their own circle of copartners-turned-friends.
And for the first time in my life, I had a best friend.
So for us, the last thing on our minds was leaving all of this behind. But when the 2008 financial crisis hit, it became reality.
My parents lost their hedge fund. Stripped of nearly all their finances, they found that they could no longer afford the upper-class lifestyle they had grown accustomed to living in for over a year and a half. But in my eight-year-old mind, all that I thought of when I heard the words “we’re moving” was that I was going to lose my best friend.
During the winter break of 2008, my parents sold their Coral Springs home and moved into my mom’s sister’s house in Westfield. While my aunt’s home was meant to be a temporary living situation for us, given that she and her husband just moved in and had a newborn in tow, my parents and my relatives compromised. My parents would take care of the infant until they had enough money to move, while my sister and I would attend Jefferson Elementary School.
Flash forward four years later, and my parents were back in the job industry. My aunt and uncle soon began to pester my parents to move out. For them, there was only so much ‘family’ they could handle being around. But for my parents, there was never enough of it, which resulted in them renting a duplex home a three-minute drive away. It didn’t help that by this point, my family had fallen in love with Westfield and wanted nothing more than to stay. To us, the atmosphere and the people within it were so reminiscent of those in Coral Springs that living in Westfield almost felt like we had never moved.
So while my sister and I went on to attend WHS in New Jersey, my friends and former classmates went on to attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in nearby Parkland.
Feb. 14, 2018: I turned on the news only to see my former classmates’ school roped off by police tape, the words “Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooter takes lives of 17 students” filling the bottom of the TV screen. My first thought being of my friends and classmates at the school, I frantically began to search online to see if the victim list had been released. It hadn’t, and I began to cry, upset that I couldn’t find out if they were alright as I didn’t have any way to contact many of them. However, I did have social media connections to the best friend I had lost nine years ago. I messaged her and waited, phone clutched in both hands. It must’ve been five minutes — or thirty, as I was too upset to keep track — my phone lit up with her response. I cried.
For the next day, all that was on my mind was the list. I couldn’t even leave bed. I checked every hour to see if any more information had surfaced, and by early evening, news media had the list circulating as the top trending story. Even though I didn’t know who any of the deceased were, I still cried because although I no longer live in Florida, a part of me will always remain there, as will the friends I made and the community I left behind. For me, what happened at this South Floridian high school doesn’t just hit close to home — it hits home.
In the weeks that have passed since the incident, I’ve reflected on my would-be life in Florida. After all, had the stock market not crashed, had my parents remained successful in their hedge fund and had I thus remained in Florida, I too would’ve been an MSD student and could’ve very well been there that day.
I’ve been debating whether or not I should write this article ever since the Parkland school shooting. After all, I wasn’t sure how relevant my brief and seemingly trivial two years spent living in Florida and getting to know many of the students who went on to attend MSD would be. After all, the MSD students have been channeling their grief into activism so well that I didn’t want my words to get in the way.
But with the encouragement of several people, I realized I had so much to say that there was no way I could just say nothing.
So, what I do have to say is this: In this seemingly fleeting moment that I spent in Florida, I’ve gotten to know some of the students in MSD; without having met them, I never would’ve known true kindness. My life has been forever touched by them, and I feel tremendously for their loss.