By Srijita Chattopadhyay
The walls of faded blue were plastered with posters of bands and TV shows, from Panic at the Disco to Supernatural. The smell of rich sandalwood filled the air inside the room. A heap of colorful stuffed animals were piled in a corner. A small Zen fountain gurgled on a bookstand next to a blue-orange wristband that read “We are Marshall Strong.”
Lela Free sat on her bed surrounded by her social studies homework with a wireless controller in hand pointed toward a small TV on the dresser by her bed. Firing gunshots at bad guys and mutated creatures in “Fallout 4,” a post-apocalyptic video game.
“Gunshots would freak me out before,” Lela said. “But video games have helped me overcome my PTSD symptoms.”
Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, was yet another school day at Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky — until 7:57 a.m. That’s when fellow freshman, Gabriel Parker, allegedly opened fire in the school commons leaving two dead and 15 others injured. It was the first mass school shooting in 2018.
As of April 20, there have been 20 reported school-related shooting incidents in the United States in 2018 where someone was hurt or killed, according to an article on CNN. That averages out to one school shooting per week. Out of the 20 reported shootings, five of them were non-threatening injuries, eight were fatal injuries and seven resulted in one or more deaths.
That morning, 14-year-old Lela was at the cafeteria near the commons having breakfast doughnuts with her boyfriend, Seth Adams, her best friend, Sarah Rundles, and a few other classmates. They were engrossed in their conversation about memes when Lela heard “pops.”
She didn’t think much of the sound. “Teenagers are idiots,” she thought. “They are always banging on the lunch trays.”
But within seconds she knew it was not a lunch tray.
“You could hear the agonizing screams of the people who had been shot,” Lela said. “There was blood everywhere. I probably saw more but I am glad I forgot.”
Sitting in the corner of a dark home economics classroom with her peers, Lela thought she was going to die. That morning, she had finally felt like she belonged.
“Seth, I think I am finally enjoying school,” Lela had said.
“That’s good babe,” Seth replied.
Born in Murray-Calloway County Hospital in the summer of 2004, Lela grew up out in the country with few neighbors and abundance of nature. Being the only child, she spent a lot of time around adults and the rest of the hours reading, said Lela’s father, Terry Free.
“She caught on from everybody,” Free said explaining how fast his toddler would grasp on to things. “She was not shy,” he continued, “and she didn’t like to share anything.” Growing up with no siblings didn’t give Lela the opportunity to understand the concept of sharing until her parents put her in day-care.
As years passed, Lela learned to share, care, love and understand others, while becoming aware of the power of her voice.
One summer, Lela’s grandmother, Jean Roscoe, took the 8-year-old Lela to JCPenney in Owensboro to buy shoes. As the cashier confirmed the price to her grandmother, Lela spoke, “we get a 10 percent off!” she said. The cashier had marked the shoes full price instead of including the discount.
“I was so proud of her,” recalled Roscoe with a smile on her face. “Lela has never hesitated to stand up for what is right.”
Since Lela didn’t have many friends, she spent a considerable amount of time at her grandparents’ house in Owensboro. But, in sixth grade, she met Sarah Rundles at South Marshall Middle School and embarked on something new – a friendship.
Lela was chubby and would often get picked on by her classmates in elementary and much into middle school. Even though Lela would stand up to her bullies, they would continue regardless.
“I didn’t like standing by and watching it happen every day,” Sarah said. “So, I put a stop to it and made her my new friend.”
Over the course of the next few months, Sarah started going through severe family issues. When she shared what was going on with Lela, she took her in. She shared with Sarah, her bed, her food, and her clothes.
It was then that they became best friends.
Other than Sarah, the only other person Lela considers a best friend is Seth.
Lela met Seth in eighth grade, last year. During the semester the two were paired to do an extracurricular science project. Lela remembers having a crush and getting excited about every chance to interact with him.
“I used to make fun of him for how much he likes Star Wars,” she said. “That was the only way I could get his attention sometimes.”
Around the time when they met, Lela started going through personal issues and family problems. In Seth, she found comfort and support. The couple started dating in June 2017 and have been inseparable since.
“Lela is one of the most caring person, she is always there for people 24/7,” Seth said. “But I’m the only one who is there for her like that.”
High school work usually keeps them busy most of the week, so the couple decided to dedicate Wednesday evenings to spend time with each other. The weekend before Jan. 23, a Wednesday, the couple started watching a Netflix original, “End of the F***ing World,” a dark comedy about two runaway young adults. The eeriness of the show is highlighted by the Bernadette Carroll, 1962 rendition of “Laughing on the Outside,” as the prelude.
The pop song stuck with Lela for some strange reason.
I’m laughing on the outside
Crying on the inside
‘Cause I’m so in love with you.
The shooting continued while Lela, Sarah, and Seth sat in the same classroom. Minutes felt like hours and the only thing running through Lela’s head was the Bernadette Carroll song. It was like a broken record; it was on repeat, it was loud, and she couldn’t get it out of her head.
The shooting had finally stopped. Then, the hallway reverberated with the sound of footsteps. Multiple cops stormed in and asked the students to put their hands in the air. It was a bitter-sweet moment for Lela. On one hand, the shooting was over, and she had lived. On the other hand, she knew that her sense of security at any public place was snatched. The joy of being alive lasted only for a moment before the shock took over.
From the classroom, the students were escorted to the tech center at the high school campus and then transported to the middle school, away from the crime scene. There Seth waited impatiently for his mother to arrive, while Lela sat stuck in a trance.
“At times Lela would break into these really bad sobs,” Seth said. “And then snap right back into the unresponsive state, like a switch flipped.”
Weeks following the shooting, the ghosts of the Tuesday would haunt Lela. Certain sounds, a voice, a memory, an object, would transport her to the day she wished never happened.
“You don’t know a nightmare ’til you have suffered one and have to relive it in your dreams,” she said.
The new normal was slowly dawning over Marshall County as the days in January came to an end. The month of love had begun.
It was Lela and Seth’s first Valentine’s Day, a Wednesday she remembers eagerly looking forward to. That evening they were going to ditch homework, relax with face masks and watch a movie at Seth’s.
Heather Adams, Seth’s mother, planned to surprise them with a nice Valentine’s dinner. She had gone to Walmart and picked up some of their favorite deli platters. On her way home, her phone beeped with the news about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. She went to pick up Lela and Seth from school with a sunken heart that afternoon.
“Guys, it happened again,” she said.
“We know. How bad is it?” Lela and Seth replied.
“Oh, it is bad. It is pretty bad,” she said.
This time 17 were dead and 14 were injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It had ceased to feel like Valentine’s Day for Lela.
The quiet evening shrouded over Lela’s reopened wounds. She kept checking for updates. With every fleeting minute, wrath stirred inside her. Sadness had turned to anger. “Something was awakened,” Adams said. “That day they knew that they couldn’t sit around the house being sad.”
In the days that preceded the March for Our Lives event planned nationally, a Western Kentucky chapter was conceptualized. The national student-led demonstration in support of tighter gun control was now adopted by the local community.
Lela kept following the news on Parkland and felt empowered by the survivors and their readiness for action. She began preparing to coordinate her community’s March for Our Lives. Lela designed a newspaper poster, flyers to hang around school bulletin boards and a banner to be displayed at the event, and she started to reach out to potential student speakers.
“Handing that leadership role to her made her realize that she had a powerful voice,” Adams said.
Lela was unstoppable and determined, she stood tall with a renewed sense of purpose.
“I felt like I needed to make an impact, to make myself feel like I have done something,” Lela said. “I wanted to speak for the people who could not anymore.”
Erin Mathis met Lela as a student in her social studies last semester when Lela started high school. Mathis was immediately surprised by her maturity and willpower compared to her peer group.
“Sometimes I think, ‘is she really a teenager?’” Mathis said. “Because Lela considers things, most teenagers don’t.”
The powerful aspect of her personality, Mathis recalled, is that she is able to offer an opposing viewpoint challenging her peers to think about things differently. In discussions about gun control during class, Lela has shared her views on supporting gun control and the requirement for vetting the need of certain types of firearms but, at the same time, has never criticized any of her classmates for having an opposing view.
“Usually you don’t see freshmen level students be so invested in causes,” Mathis said. “I can see her becoming a human right advocate in the future.”
March 23, 2018, marked the two-month anniversary of the Marshall County High School Shooting. The Marshall Strong signs had started to wear out. The evening was unfolding into a deep blue sky. Lela sat in the back seat of Heather Adams’ car along with Seth and a few of her other friends. They were heading to Murray State University.
It had just started to drizzle as Adams pulled into the gravel lot of Wilson Hall. Laughing and chattering, the herd quickly walked toward classroom 316 where they were going to meet others to practice their March for Our Lives speeches.
The rehearsal commenced. Students started to walk up to the front of the room elocuting their speeches to the group. They spoke about stories, trauma, opinions and their futures.
Lela stood up next and quietly walked to the front, with the speech pulled up on her phone. She was nervous. She got through her speech somehow.
“I am sorry, I just got…” Lela said.
“Just be comfortable and you are not going to be scared,” an adult volunteer replied.
After her speech, Lela paced through the dimly lit university hallway. “I think I am going to cry during my speech tomorrow,” she whispered. “I hope nothing goes wrong.”
That night, Lela stayed up late to polish her speech and got up early next morning to print and file all her peers’ speeches. She reached the venue three hours ahead of time to practice. After a few rehearsals, Lela began volunteering to help set up.
The march began at 1 p.m.
The sky was dull and gray. Light rain sprinkled over the hundreds who gathered. Signs about gun violence and gun control hung in the air. Seven students had already given their speeches. Lela was next.
She spoke, the crowd cheered.
She raised her voice, the crowd cheered.
She roared, the crowd screamed as tears and rain rolled down their cheeks.
The more power Lela channeled through her voice, the louder the crowd got. Her father, Terry Free, sat in front on a blue tailgate chair, with glistening eyes and a flip phone in his hand pointed at the stage, video recording his daughter’s speech.
“Maybe this is what she is on the earth for, you know,” Free said. “But, I don’t want her to grow up too fast.”
Sharing her story and using her voice to talk about the need for gun reform in her society has helped Lela heal from her trauma tremendously, according to her father. The platform at the march made her realize that her voice and her opinions matter.
Lela has always been interested in current affairs and world politics. She finds inspiration in human rights advocates like Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Noble peace prize winner, and Emma Gonzalez, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor and a student activist for gun reform. She dreams of finishing high school and moving to a bigger city in Kentucky, like Murray, she said, where she can pursue going to college and finding avenues for her activism.
“For as long as I’ve known her, she’s wanted to make a difference,” Seth said. “The spirit to be an activist has always been there in her. It is just now coming out.”
The future is infinite for Lela; she has goals, but the plan to reach those goals is yet to be formulated.
“Mr. Sandman” by The Cordettes now blared in her room, while her dogs barked in the background. The night grew darker, and Lela continued to concentrate on killing the bad guys in her video game, occasionally yelling and cussing at the screen.
“I have always been opinionated and had a voice,” she said. “Looking back, I wish I would have done it sooner than after the shooting.”
Meanwhile, the pages of her social studies homework remain untouched.