Parkland Student: March Was 'Just The Start'

Mar 26, 2018
Originally published on April 6, 2018 3:50 pm

The night before one of the biggest rallies in Washington, D.C., history, Sam Zeif is beat.

It's been a long day. It started with an early-morning hit on CNN, then another with ABC's Good Morning America, followed by an afternoon trip to MSNBC — not for the first time. Just two days earlier, he was in Los Angeles, filming a segment with Ellen DeGeneres.

Zeif, like a handful of other Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, has become a familiar face on Twitter and on television since a gunman killed 17 of his Parkland, Fla., classmates and teachers in February. The next day, he would sit on the stage of the "March for Our Lives," which attracted hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C., and around the world.

He and his classmates have had a lot of long days like this one since the shooting. Their stories are fueling a renewed push for stricter gun regulation. And they say that activism won't end with Saturday's march.

At a White House listening session hosted by President Trump one week after the shooting, Zeif cried on live TV as he put his hand on the shoulder of the Sandy Hook mom seated beside him.

"How did we not stop this after Columbine, after Sandy Hook?" Zeif asked the president. "I'm sitting with a mother that lost her son, and it's still happening."

Over the past few weeks, Zeif has spent a lot of time trying to drive home a message about gun control — do something about the killing or get voted out. But at a window table inside a downtown Washington pizza joint, where he is squeezing in a few pieces of pizza before a hired car shuttles him back to MSNBC for a hit with Brian Williams just before midnight, Zeif isn't talking about organizing principles or NRA dollars or an assault weapons ban.

He is mostly talking about his friend Joaquin Oliver — known as "Guac." He was one of Zeif's best friends.

"Guac was unlike anyone else," Zeif says. "He's funny. Probably one of the most free-spirited people I know. He's just absolutely beautiful, like a beautiful face, like an angel."

They played on the basketball team together before Oliver was killed in his high school on Feb. 14.

"My favorite moments with him were in the car," Zeif says. "He would move as much as possible in a seat. I think even sometimes he would put his booty in the air."

Zeif and Oliver first met in middle school, but it took a few years before they got close. Zeif remembers thinking at a trip to the beach a few years later how cool Oliver was, and that he wanted to be friends with him.

These days, Zeif thinks a lot about their friendship.

"I remember Guac and I got into a fight, and it kind of just happened out of nowhere," he says. "When we were fighting, it was when he dyed his hair blond. I wanted to tell him how good it looked, but what am I going to do?"

"He eventually he just said to me, 'Yo we gotta talk soon,' " he says, "so I hit him up to talk and as soon as he said yes I drove right to his house. I don't make myself that vulnerable to people like that, but I really wanted him in my life."

And that's when in the middle of the pizza restaurant, Zeif starts to cry.

"I just wish I had more time with him," he says softly.

There's not much time for grieving. There's another TV hit on the schedule — hair and makeup, small talk with the anchor and the production staff.

And the pace keeps on going.

When Zeif comes down to the hotel lobby the morning of the march, there are already two camera crews waiting to chronicle his journey to the rally site on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he has a seat on the stage.

There, he meets one of his favorite rappers, Vic Mensa, who is performing alongside people like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato. Toward the end of the program, Zeif holds up a T-shirt emblazoned with "Change the Ref" — the organization Oliver's father has founded in his son's memory. Zeif stretches it out wide right behind Jennifer Hudson as she sings " The Times They Are a-Changin' " backed by a choir and surrounded by Parkland students with their arms around each other.

Before the day is over, there's another roundtable on CNN, dinner with his parents, brothers and some friends near the hotel, and then, after a late night spent with friends in the hotel room, the big weekend is over.

"I don't want to get over it"

"Well, it's not over," Zeif says Sunday morning. "The whole thing is not over. This was just the start of it."

"Yeah, we finally did the march, and that's something we've all been anticipating for a month now. I don't know when or if or how I'll ever get over this," Zeif says of the shooting. "I don't want to get over it because I feel like getting over it is sort of forgetting."

In the fall, Zeif will head off to college at the school he was supposed to attend with Oliver.

"I still want to live the same life I planned before all this, going to college, traveling a lot and starting a family. But it's still going to be different. Everything's going to be different. Nothing's been even close to the same. When I'm in my house or at school or driving, everything's different."

Zeif turned 18 the day after the Parkland shooting.

When NPR first met him back in February, he told us it felt like he had turned 35.

He has had to do a lot of growing up in the past month.

In that time, he went to the funeral of one of his best friends. At the White House, he looked the president of the United States in the eyes and demanded he help make the killings stop.

He has been on TV, met Ellen and Vic Mensa and Vice President Pence; his Twitter following has reached nearly 20,000.

He is also still grieving.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Most of us experienced the March For Our Lives this past weekend through photos or articles. But for a small group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School it was a total whirlwind. They were in the spotlight showing their grief and their conviction that change is needed to the world.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of those students is Sam Zeif. He's been on our program before just after the shooting. This weekend, he came to Washington for the march. And we sent our producer Sam Gringlas to spend time with him, reflecting on the change he hoped the march would bring and also remembering the friend he lost in the shooting just a few weeks ago.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Sam Zeif is one of the Parkland students you might have seen on TV a lot in the past few weeks. He's tall and skinny, a basketball player. He's got a goatee, and the front of his hair is dyed blond. He's not an organizer of the March For Our Lives. But in the wake of the shooting at his high school he stumbled into public view as he grieved for his best friend Joaquin Oliver, who died that day in Parkland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAM ZEIF: My name is Sam Zeif. I'm a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

GRINGLAS: This was at the White House a week later at a listening session with President Trump along with lots of other students, parents of past mass shooting victims, members of the administration. At one point, as he spoke, Sam just fell apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZEIF: How do we not stop this after Columbine, after Sandy Hook? I'm sitting with a mother that lost her son. It's still happening.

GRINGLAS: That was a month ago. And since then, life for Sam Zeif has gone on. His basketball team won their championship. He kept going to class. It's his senior year, and he got into Florida State, his dream school. And Thursday he arrived in Washington, D.C., for the march with his family and a packed schedule.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

KATY TUR: Joining me on set here in the newsroom is Sam Zeif, a student at Marjory Stoneman...

ERICA HILL: Sam Zeif. Good to have both of you with us.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: With us here tonight is our old friend Sam Zeif.

GRINGLAS: And after all those interviews wrapped, his basketball team was honored on the court at a Washington Wizards game. And then finally he found a moment to grab some food.

Whenever you guys are ready. Have a slice of pizza, though. Just before the pizza...

Between bites of pizza, I ask about the march. What's he expecting? Is he excited? But his mind isn't really there. It's on his friend.

ZEIF: It's almost hard to describe him. He's so unique, just absolutely beautiful, just, like, a beautiful face like an angel.

GRINGLAS: Joaquin Oliver was 17. He was captain of the basketball team. His dad was the coach. He was born in Venezuela and moved here when he was 3. His friends call him Guac. And Sam says he was a really good friend - a free spirit.

ZEIF: My favorite moments with him where, like, in the car, OK? He'd always dance. He would move as much as possible in his seat. I think even sometimes he would put his booty in the air.

GRINGLAS: There are happy memories and really hard ones. He talks about how he and Guac had had a fight and they didn't talk for a long time. And then in the middle of the pizza shop the night before this big public event on guns and policy, Sam Zeif just starts crying.

ZEIF: I wish I had more time with him.

GRINGLAS: He cries for a long time. His girlfriend hands him napkins to wipe away his tears. These days, Sam says he spends a lot of time with the other people in their friend group. That's made it a little easier to grieve together outside of the spotlight.

ZEIF: We all kind of have our own little pieces of him. And I guess when we're together it kind of feels somewhat - not even, but somewhat whole again, you know? It makes me sad each time, but I never get tired of talking about him, you know?

GRINGLAS: The next morning in the hotel lobby...

ZEIF: I need coffee.

GRINGLAS: ...Sam Zeif is bleary-eyed. He does not seem like a morning person. But there to greet him around 9:30 a.m. were three TV crews that had been given the OK to follow him to the march, including one from Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Could we go downstairs on the street and do a little walk? Or we...

GRINGLAS: There's a lot of waiting. And then finally...

ZEIF: We're about to all get in the cars and go over to the march.

GRINGLAS: We caravan to the march, passing armored trucks that have blocked off the streets. There are streams of people carrying signs all headed towards the National Mall for the route.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Vote them out. Vote them out. Vote them out.

GRINGLAS: When we get there Sam is ushered away. His family gets special passes. And he sits on a set of chairs to the side of the stage as mostly students from all over the country go up and speak.

ZEIF: It was crazy overlooking the whole march. It was just like a sea of people that never ended.

GRINGLAS: Hundreds of thousands of people filled Pennsylvania Avenue.

ZEIF: To think that there were 836 other marches just like that was remarkable.

GRINGLAS: The rally itself was several hours long, and a bunch of Sam's classmates spoke.

ZEIF: Out of all the speeches, I liked Alex Wind's the most.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEX WIND: To those people that tell us that teenagers can't do anything, I say that we were the only people that could have made this movement possible.

(CHEERING)

GRINGLAS: And at one point, senior Sam Fuentes actually threw up on stage from nerves or excitement or just the weight of the moment. She spat, laughed it off and kept going.

ZEIF: That was crazy (laughter). But it was also kind of good for kind of showing that all these big things that we're doing, we're still kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER HUDSON: (Singing) So we've got to change it before...

GRINGLAS: Jennifer Hudson was one of the performers. And toward the end she's up on the stage backed up by a choir, and there are a whole bunch of Parkland kids surrounding her with their arms around each other. Sam is standing right next to her, and he's stretched out a big T-shirt to honor his friend.

ZEIF: Just like anything, I was doing it for Guac.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUDSON: (Singing) My heart show 'cause I got to start so I know...

ZEIF: I seen Clark's dad while I was doing that. And he was just freaking out, losing it, dancing like crazy (laughter).

GRINGLAS: Emma Gonzalez gave the very last speech. She's another senior from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and one of the organizers of the march. And she started naming all 17 of her classmates and teachers who were killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMMA GONZALEZ: Six minutes and 20 seconds with an AR-15, and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Keira (ph) Miss Sunshine.

GRINGLAS: And then she gets to Guac.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONZALEZ: Liam at lunch. Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan (ph). Alaina Petty would never...

GRINGLAS: She ended her speech with silence, filling out the rest of the time it took for a gunman to take all those lives. That idea is what Sam is thinking about on Sunday morning as he heads to the airport. That after all the marching is done, after the policy arguments have been made and the camera crews have packed up, those people are still gone.

ZEIF: You know, even I feel maybe, like, when we do win this fight, then I won't really have anything to fight for at that point. And then it'll just like [expletive] it, my friend's still not here.

GRINGLAS: Sam's headed back to Parkland, Fla. In the fall, he'll be off to college at a school he was supposed to attend with his friend Guac.

ZEIF: I still want to live the same life that I planned before all this - traveling, starting a family.

GRINGLAS: But it's still going to be a little different.

ZEIF: Oh, yeah, more than a little different. Just everything's going to be different, really.

GRINGLAS: It's different because of what won't be there - the freshman year of college he and Guac would have spent together, more dancing in the car, more pickup games of basketball. He won't have any of that. Sam doesn't know, at least no more than any other 18-year-old knows, what his future will be like. But he knows it'll be shaped by the loss of a good friend gone much too soon. Sam Gringlas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG AND SICK SONG, "DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.