• Ryan Finkelstein

Life after the Parkland shooting: ‘I wake up and I think about it’

Updated: Nov 27, 2018

Stoneman Douglas student Jonathan Blank doesn’t see himself as an activist, but as a survivor who wants to be sure this never happens again.

PARKLAND, Fla. — Jonathan Blank is a typical teenager in every way. The 17-year-old is a huge New York Giants fan, plays sports like basketball and football with his friends and is looking forward to starting college in just over a year from now.

Yet the innocence of being a teenager was stripped away from him when his school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was attacked by Nikolas Cruz on Feb. 14. Cruz shot dead 14 students and three faculty members with AR-15, and injured 18 more.

But Blank isn’t just another Parkland activist: He was in one of the classrooms that Cruz shot into, watching as classmates were gunned down while he and others cowered in horror.

Following those tragic events, the students of Stoneman Douglas have become internationally recognized activists demanding action on gun control and school safety, so that what happened to their school never happens again.

Where Blank’s message differs from some of the more prominent figures from his high school is not in the long-term goals, but rather the fact that he witnessing the horrors of that day firsthand.

Blank was in his Holocaust Studies class when he began to hear gunshots. Those sounds of gunshots still haunt him to this day.

Two kids in his class ended up passing away, Nicholas Dworet and Helena Ramsey, and six others were wounded. Blank is very lucky that he made it out alive, which is not lost on his mother, Melissa.

“My son came so close to being shot and came so close to dying,” she says in an interview. “It’s very difficult.”

What happened at Stoneman is living nightmare not only for all the students involved, but also for the friends and family. After coming so close to losing her son, she will never take the little things for granted again.

“Now you know when your child leaves the house to go anywhere you make sure to say I love you to your child,” she says. “You make sure you say those words. You don’t know when the last time is going to be.”

The difficulty of going through this awful experience is one that Jonathan wishes that no one will have to endure again. That is why when his father was approached by the commissioner of Broward county and asked if Jonathan would like to tell his story in Washington D.C., he jumped at the opportunity.

Jonathan, along with some of his other classmates and family members, went to D.C. for a listening session that included President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

“They wanted to hear what we had to say about how we dealt with everything. It wasn’t too much about politics, it was more about letting them know how horrible everything is and how it is to deal with everything,” says Jonathan.

Following his trip to the White House, Jonathan has made visits to high schools such as West Orange High School in Orlando, Fla. to tell his story. He wants everyone, particularly students, to understand that what happened to him can happen anywhere and that people must remain vigilant to prevent it from happening again.

This summer, Jonathan will speak at another high school. The fact that he’s been so vocal, despite going through such a traumatic experience, was not a surprise to people that know him well.

Jonathan has always been an outgoing person, even dating back to days in elementary school. His fifth-grade teacher Kevra Barnell, 52, remembers Blank, or as she calls him JB, as one of her favorite students ever.

“When he was in my class, he was the class clown and he was unpredictable as for what he might do, but he was funny as shit.”

She says that she would be in the middle of teaching her class and he would get up to get some water and then fall down on purpose, to which the entire class would erupt in laughter.

Barnell remarks that he was the type of kid that a teacher should have disliked, but he was so lovable that she could never get mad at him. So, when Jonathan began to speak out and show up on the news, she was not surprised at all.

“It didn’t surprise me, it impressed me to see that he had grown up. I am sure around his friends he is still that jokester kind of kid, but he was always a caring type of kid. He is channeling his inner JB to make a difference in his way in this situation.” Barnell said.

Blank has an outgoing personality that makes him a great leader. As a member of the student government at school, Jonathan has led pep rallies and never been shy about public speaking. These are the tools that have made him a great advocate for change.

One of his biggest concerns is that there were many red flags that Cruz had exhibited that were ignored, and Jonathan feels it is important for people to pay attention and take action when those red flags come up.

When it comes to the gun control issue that is so often talked about, Blank does not want to be part of that discussion. He simply wants people to take the steps required to keep schools safe.

“I did participate in the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC. I will continue to participate in events and speak out as much as I can in order to make school a safe place to be for students and teachers everywhere,” he says.

NeverAgain MSD is a student-led gun control organization that is pushing for tighter regulations to prevent gun violence. Student organizers from Never Again MSD, planned the March for Our Lives in collaboration with another gun-control organization, Everytown for Gun Safety.

Blank is behind what those students in the Never Again MSD organization are doing, and supported them by attending the big event on March 24. Yet he chooses not to get more heavily involved because he does not want to be involved in the political aspects of those discussions.

As one of the survivors of a classroom that was raked with gunfire, Blank has chosen to allow his story to move people toward change.

“I am trying to get my story out there and keep letting them know that it should never happen, there needs to be change and restrictions on certain laws. Although I don’t get into detail on that stuff,” he explains.

Since Jonathan saw everything first-hand, he has a different outlook on the pertinent issues than other people that are being activists at his school.

“I believe everyone grieves in their own way and everyone was struck by this tragedy. People who were not in the 1200 building are grieving for the loss of their classmates, their teachers and their colleagues,” he adds. “Though they were not in the building they have been impacted by this tragedy.”

While everyone in Stoneman Douglas and the entire community of Parkland continues to grieve, there is an extra hurdle for those people who were in the building to overcome in the grieving process.

“As for me, I am grieving everyday reliving February 14th in my mind. Being in one of the actual classes and seeing what I did can never be erased from mind. I think it is extremely hard for everyone as we all lost classmates, teachers and colleagues at MSD and people in the 1200 building unfortunately have the visual in their mind which does make it harder reliving the tragedy. I wake up I think about it, during the day I think about it and when I go to sleep I think about it.”

This is also why Jonathan is not opposed to some of the newest security measures that have taken place at Stoneman Douglas. After students returned from spring break, they were required to not only wear their student ID’s at all times, but they also had to switch to clear backpacks.

While some of his fellow students saw the clear backpacks as a violation of their privacy, Blank feels that anything that could potentially help with security is worth implementing.

“When he hears people complaining about security in school, he’s like, why are you complaining. You asked for security and you are getting the security. What about the kids that don’t have security,” Melissa Blank, Jonathan’s mother.

Jonathan has now been to the White House and been featured on the popular show, The View. He’s been on various channels and had an op-ed published on CNN Opinion. He has gotten to experience these unique things that would usually be incredible, but under the worst circumstances imaginable.

Due to his powerful message, he has been lauded as an activist by many, including “View” co-host Whoopi Goldberg.

Yet Jonathan does not necessarily see himself as an activist.

“I’m just talking, I’m not trying to do anything special. I am just telling people my story and how I feel about what is going on. If people look up to that, I guess I am OK with that and I am [an activist], but I don’t see myself as one.”

Whether you consider it activism or not, Jonathan Blank is a brave young man who is lending his voice to the most traumatic experience of his life in hopes saving the lives of others in the future.

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