One year later, East Lyme student still inspired by #NeverAgain movement

East Lyme — Though it was a six-plus-hour drive on a weekend, East Lyme High School student Julia Walker knew that she needed to be in Washington, D.C., last March for the March for Our Lives protests.

It was six weeks after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and while the march was an opportunity for thousands of students from across the country to oppose gun violence, for Walker it was a chance to cover the march for The Viking Saga, the school's newspaper.

“The march wasn’t about whether you believed in guns or not, but how we should strive to keep our kids safe. And I felt like I strongly agreed with that,” Walker, now a 16-year-old junior, said earlier this month.

“I was very insistent that I wanted to be there,” she said. “It seemed like it would be a part of history that I would miss out on if I didn’t go. I wanted to be able to one day read about it in my grandkids’ textbook and say to them, ‘Oh, I was there, too.’”

Instead of a history book, however, Walker's presence at the march was recently documented in five pages of New York Times best-selling author Dave Cullen’s book “Parkland: Birth of a Movement.” Published Feb. 12, the book details how the Parkland shootings, and its subsequent #NeverAgain movement, led to the political awakening of a generation. 

Two days later, on the one-year anniversary of the shooting, Walker was also mentioned in a Rolling Stone story detailing the movement and its promise for change.

As was documented in those two stories, Walker met Cullen after serendipitously making her way into the press tent at the protests. Her camera had broken while she was trying to cover the march. Needing help with that, she gained access to the press tent after showing a security guard her laminated green construction-paper “press pass” from her high school newspaper.

Astonished by Walker’s tenacity to get into the press tent where credentials were hard to come by, Cullen, who was covering the march for Vanity Fair, said he decided to take Walker "under his wing" over the next few hours, giving her a real-life lesson in journalism.

“Stick close,” he told her. “Just ask questions” and “be interested.”

During those hours, Walker met the very students who had motivated her to be at the protests in the first place. She talked to Parkland students David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, all while meeting other journalists from across the country.

“It was a moment that solidified my feeling that I needed to become a journalist,” Walker said. “It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

A deeper spark ignited

Before the Parkland shooting, Walker said she cared little about the news or political issues. Even though she was in a first-year journalism class at school and her mother and grandfather watched the news every night while talking politics across the dinner table, Walker avoided those conversations.

“I just didn’t want to be a part of it,” she said. “I just went to school and lived my life.”

On the day of the shooting, that all began to change when she came home from school and turned on the news, something she rarely did. 

And even though she wasn’t necessarily moved by what she was watching — “It was normal to see news about mass shootings my whole life” — Walker said she felt that what was happening on the news “could actually, for the first time, affect my friends and I.”

So she started observing how the energy in her school had shifted in the weeks following the shooting. Her peers, she said, “were talking about it non-stop and everyone’s mood had changed.”

“It wasn’t chaos, but it was sadness and silence and a little bit of fear,” she said, explaining that it was then she started thinking about how to localize the issue of gun violence for her school’s newspaper.

“This was something that mattered to my peers, so it mattered to me, too,” she said.

But as Walker kept watching the news over the coming weeks, it wasn’t until she saw David Hogg, a Parkland shooting survivor speaking intensely against gun violence on channels such as CNN and MSNBC, when a deeper spark was ignited.

“He just seemed so passionate and he cared about what he was talking about,” Walker said. “Most people don’t care about what they are talking about usually, but he did."

“He inspired me right then to care about what I said, too. He just put all his energy into what he was working towards, and that’s when I realized what I wanted to do with my articles, as well,” she said.

'She didn't take no for an answer'

Besides attending the march and meeting Cullen and a handful of other journalists that day, Walker has since written stories covering everything from fake news to the evolving roles of women and minorities at the New York Times for her high school’s paper. She and a team of classmates publish the 12-page paper every other week.

As part of the #NeverAgain movement, Julia took an active role planning and writing several stories for an edition of the Saga dedicated entirely to the issue of gun violence.

She plans to attend journalism school after graduating next year and dreams of one day covering national issues such as gun laws, opioid addiction and prison reform for publications such as The New York Times or Vogue.

Besides working as editor of her paper’s news section, where she focuses on localizing national issues, Walker is also president and founder of Model United Nations and participates in her school’s Rotary Club, Key Club and Women in STEM Club. She is also on the tennis and cross-country teams.

According to her Contemporary Issues teacher Rose Ann Hardy, Walker is “a force,” someone who “takes you by surprise.”

“She is very underestimated with her soft, high-pitched voice," Hardy said. "You don’t think of her as being the force that she really is.”

Cullen added to that point, saying that when he saw Walker in the press tent, wearing her big glasses and braces, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He knew in that moment, Walker was representative of something larger.

“This event was by kids, about kids, for kids. And Julia totally symbolized what that meant,” Cullen said in a phone interview earlier this month. “She was a real-life example of a real kid being affected by the movement.

“She could have been sitting on her butt doing whatever that day,” Cullen continued. “But here was this girl that showed up, a sophomore from Connecticut who had told her mom that this was really important.

“Just like the student survivors who inspired her," he said, "Julia was someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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