FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - Dressed in flowing, elegant gowns, Michelle Dittmeier and three friends struck poses in front of a towering stream of water and surrounded by trees in Parkland, Florida.
Three of the girls made fun of the fourth’s flat and plain sandals, comparing their sparkly high heels.
“I’m driving! I have to wear these!” she exclaimed.
They laughed as one of the mothers told them to move their arm, put their head down, stand still for the camera.
Nearly three months after the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were thrown into the national spotlight under the most unnatural circumstances, the Class of 2018 participated in one of the most routine and traditional American high school experiences – their senior-year prom.
“I’ve looked forward to it since freshman year,” Nikhita Nookala, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, said as she got her first-ever gel manicure: a neutral tan to complement her gold dress.
“Well, it’s a special occasion!” she laughed when asked why she splurged for the more expensive and longer-lasting gel.
On February 14, a shooter killed 17 people after storming Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a high-power assault rifle. The tragedy inspired a movement nationwide, sparking marches in Washington and state capitals, and creating a prolonged gun-control debate with Parkland youth becoming the voice of the movement.
Many of the MSD high-schoolers have stepped into leadership roles typically held by adults.
But on May 5, Nookala and her classmates were just kids enjoying a classic American rite of passage.
“A lot of people have been asking me if it feels like bittersweet prom,” said Suzannah Barna, another senior in Parkland, sitting next to Nookala as her crimson nails dried.
“I think like for me, as much as it does, I’m trying to not feel that way about it just because you only get one prom," Barna said. "And it’s kind of like what every high school looks forward to.”
A lot of seniors used the word “normal” when describing how prom was going to be, and how they wanted it to be.
“It’s normal in the sense that it’s normal for seniors to go to prom,” Felicia Burgin, an MSD teacher and senior class advisor, told VOA.
“It’s not normal in the sense that there have been so many vendors who have come out to donate or do this or do that it’s really. ... I don’t even know what to call it. It’s so over-the-top,” she added.
In the wake of the shooting, the hotel where the prom was held offered tens of thousands of dollars of extra services, including large LED screens, and multiple attendants at a made-to-order risotto bar inside the hall. A local doughnut company donated what they call a “donut wall.” Local photographers offered free prom photos, and some parents and beauticians organized free hair and makeup services before the event.
Thank you to Jupiter Donuts for providing donut walls at Prom. Delicious. pic.twitter.com/sn2WbSTU51— Principal Thompson (@PrincipalMSD) May 5, 2018
“There’s a lot of people from the community that wanted to, like, help out and sponsor our prom, and the venue itself gave a really big discount and the alumni network secured the DJ and the party favors so we didn’t have to pay any of that,” Nookala said.
At 12:01 a.m. Saturday, hotel staff at the Westin moved audio equipment into the ballroom. They set up a large LED screen to be used for a memorial to six seniors who perished.
Dittmeier worked with Burgin to create six journals for each of the seniors who died: four in the shooting, one from cystic fibrosis, and another who committed suicide.
“There’s a journal for each of the six seniors who are no longer with us,” Dittmeier told VOA, explaining that students would have an opportunity to express themselves and write messages to their classmates who could not attend prom.
But the journals, as well as the memorial, were just a few of many elements at the prom. Though the tragedy and trauma of the shooting is still fresh, the focus of the prom remained celebratory.
“You can’t ignore it, but you don’t really want to focus on it,” Burgin said. “It’s such a huge balance.”
“We’re just normal people,” Dittmeier said. “We’re living life like we’re kids because we are. Even though we now have to act a little more mature because of what has happened, but we’re still just normal kids.”