Diana Haneski, a veteran library media specialist, had been wanting for years to host a literary festival for her teen readers and writers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, but there was always trouble finding time to organize what she had in mind.
Then, on Valentine’s Day at her school, a troubled former student killed 17 students and teachers. Organizing a literary festival dropped way down on the list of things that needed to be done.
But led by Chris Crutcher, who had just experienced a school shooting close to his home in Washington State, and a group of South Florida authors steered by Kerry O’Malley Cerra, whose first teaching job was at Douglas High, the school has just kicked off a two-day celebration of storytelling and reading that Haneski is calling the Orange Blossom Lit and Art Fest, running May 17–18.
“Chris reached out to MSD right away, offering us a visit whenever we wanted one,” said Haneski, who had hosted the author at her former school, Westglades Middle.
A few days after Crutcher’s offer, Cerra was volunteering at Douglas High, hanging banners to welcome students back when she ran into Haneski in a hallway. “It had only been a few days since the shooting, but she was more determined than ever to make [the lit fest] happen for the students,” Cerra said. “It’s like she knew in that moment they would need something like this. Living in the community myself, I know she’s right.”
Cerra and fellow South Florida author Debbie Reed Fischer contacted every writer they knew, and the event came together within a few short weeks. “All of a sudden we have 27 authors for our first-ever Lit Fest!” Haneski said. Meg Cabot, who lives in Key West, will also present via Skype. Classroom visits begin this Thursday and continue on Friday. On Thursday evening, Barnes & Noble is offering a massive author signing, which will also serve as a school fundraiser.
Crutcher, a vocal advocate for gun control, said he reached out to the school because a community near his home had experienced a similar, if less catastrophic, attack just six weeks before the massacre in Parkland. A 15-year-old at Freeman High School in Spokane Valley, Wash., died after he confronted a fellow student in a hallway who was struggling to load ammunition into an automatic weapon. The shooter dropped the rifle and shot Sam Strahan with a pistol. Strahan died; three other girls were seriously injured. Law enforcement officials agreed that getting the shooter to drop the rifle most likely saved many more lives in the crowded hallway.
Crutcher, who also knew the librarian at Freeman High, visited that school after its tragedy. He especially wants to offer support to the Douglas High students who have led the charge to restrict the sale and ownership of automatic weaponry.
“One thing I will say to them is, here’s a message from Sam Strahan. I’m the only kid who died because [the shooter] wasn’t able to use his rifle. A pistol doesn’t have the killing capacity of an automatic weapon. Let’s get rid of those goddam guns.”
Cerra, who has already been to Douglas High to speak to students, says the needs at the school are great, but support for what students—and teachers—have gone and are going through is at the top of the list.
“In talking with the students, I’d have to say what they need most are allies,” Cerra said. “They need to know that we support them as they set out to change legislature and have their voices heard.”
The creative writing class lost two students in the February 14 attack. Cerra says some of their classmates are having trouble getting their words to flow, or are worrying that writing fiction isn’t important any more. Haneski says the literary festival is one small attempt to help students reclaim the joy they once felt about books and their own writing projects. “These students, just like the teachers, need to do some of the things we’ve done before that we enjoy,” she said.
Crutcher agrees. “You have to acknowledge what happened but you also have to try to get back to normal,” he said. “This needs to be a celebration of creativity because that’s what writing is.”