Emma González has been struggling with a tough choice. Should she go to college?
On Sunday, the 18-year-old high school senior was sitting in a Barnes & Noble in a strip mall in Coral Springs, Florida, dipping french fries into a vanilla milkshake and mulling over this uncertainty.
She hadn't told her parents that she was thinking about deferring.
“I know they would be very upset to know that a) I am considering it, or that b) it’s something that I have to be considering,” she told BuzzFeed News on Monday.
Back before Feb. 14, when her world changed forever, González had planned to attend New College, a small liberal arts honors college in Sarasota located about three hours from Parkland.
Now, she wondered if she had “the right” to leave for college. In just a few short weeks, she has become the face of a national movement to end gun violence. Other members of the movement, now known as “Never Again,” are putting their college plans aside to work on the cause, she said.
“As the days go by, I’m kind of realizing I might not have a choice in that,” she said. “Do I have any right to feel like I deserve to go to college?”
Three weeks ago, a shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including her friend, Carmen Schentrup.
Immediately after the mass shooting, González and her classmates began to talk bluntly about the horrors they had witnessed. They used social media and interviews with national media to call upon politicians to protect them and other children from gun violence.
A few days later, on Feb. 17, González stood before a cheering crowd and gave a speech that immediately went viral and made her one of the Never Again movement's most recognizable faces.
“They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS!" she yelled, to the roars of the crowd.
Since then, González and about 18 fellow students have been working around the clock to push for a change in our nation’s gun laws. They are currently focused on organizing the March for Our Lives, a nationwide demonstration taking place on March 24. González has become a celebrity of sorts, writing an an op-ed for Harper’s Bazaar, and appearing with other Parkland students on Ellen.
“My mom loves that Washington Post article because it compares me to José Martí — she brings it up like every time we are in the car,” González said of the piece titled “Emma González: La Nueva Cara of Florida Latinx.” The teen’s grandparents, aunt, and dad all fled Cuba in 1968.
“She is my queen,” 18-year-old Isabella Villefranche, who attends West Boca Raton High School, told BuzzFeed News. People on Twitter have said they “stan” her.
The hashtag of her name brings up more than 8,000 posts on Instagram, many of which are fan art.
“We Call BS,” one embroidery reads, surrounded by pink hearts and flowers.
Tasha Childs, 38, who made the artwork, told BuzzFeed News that she loves the teen’s “passion.”
“She didn’t sink to using cuss words, bad words, to get her point across. She kept it pretty clean. But she didn’t stay quiet. It just resonated with me,” she said.
Another artist, Shana Lee Hampton, wrote on Instagram that her embroidery of a tweet from González took “approximately 16 hours of work.”
“Every time I see her, she gives me hope. Her speech was so inspiring. She’s just kind of such a badass. To be a badass at that young of an age, I’m just in awe,” the 42-year-old said.
Alea Bone, 51, a mom of a high schooler, painted a piece for an art show in honor of women’s history month. The exhibit is called "Fierce."
“When I saw Emma’s speech — and I was totally in tears — the first thing that came to my mind was how fierce she was. I’m going to start crying right now,” she said. “I just knew I had to paint her. That was my contribution to the revolution.”
“She gives me so much hope,” Bone added.
González finds the art both “kind of weird” and humbling, but stressed she shouldn’t be the focus of the message.
“On a larger scale though, I'm a little worried that some people will forget why I achieved such notoriety or get distracted by who I am as a person, and stop listening as closely to the words we as a whole are saying,” she said.
González isn’t so sure she is “the” main face of Never Again, as people have told her, saying all she did was “one speech.”
“And [I] did a lot of interviews, but only a couple of them were [on camera] interviews, in comparison to the other stuff. And I’m big on Twitter, but not a lot of people use Twitter,” she added.
But still, she wore a Marjory Stoneman Douglas hoodie to be less recognizable and asked if we could meet somewhere more private than the café.
“Oh my gosh, it’s you!” one man said as he passed by. “Really!” he said with a laugh. “So good to see you — good work!”
González hasn’t been doing many interviews with national press, but she has with fellow high schoolers at student-run newspapers. She said those reporters are “the nicest people” and “always girls.”
“This is my demographic,” she said. “This is our demographic. We’re trying to band everybody together. This is the best way to spread our word.”
She said that the group is “putting the media back in our own hands.”
“The adults don’t need our voices anymore,” she said. “They keep asking the same questions over and over again.”
In a way, González and her peers have been vessels for the community’s grief. She said when she sees strangers now, she wonders if they will approach her.
“Are you going to come up to me? Are you going to tell me, ‘You’re saving my child!’ I’m gonna be like, ‘Oh, my god,’” she said, miming the emotional response to such heaviness. “It really doesn’t feel like that.”
González now has over a million Twitter followers. The platform is important for the teen activists — especially now that, as one Never Again member, 17-year-old junior John Barnitt, stressed, news cameras have largely left Parkland.
“Now we can’t engage the audience with TV, so we have to go to the next best thing, which is obviously social media,” he said. “Once we lose ahold of the audience’s attention, we’re probably not going to get it back.”
The teens have found Twitter to be a powerful way to confront their critics as well.
“We are teenagers, aka experts of social media,” 18-year-old Sofie Whitney told BuzzFeed News of their meme-heavy troll-fighting strategy. “The trolls only fuel our fire and give us the outlet to outsmart them with our wit.”
The movement has also gained the attention of celebrities like Oprah and Amal and George Clooney, who each donated $500,000 to Never Again’s March for Our Lives nationwide protest.
And the movement also has the support of already-established organizations like Everytown, which works to fight gun violence.
Even with the outside support from organizations like this one, González said she and her team members are "very much in charge" of their movement and that it's student-led.
“Just look at us. We’re still here. We’re still children. We’re still going to school. And we’re still doing this in our spare time, for free,” she said.
“At some point you gotta face the facts, and the facts are that the kids are not relinquishing control here. We’ve been learning how to drive for years, and now that we have a car, no parent is going to stop us or influence us in our driving techniques.”
González said she only cries when other people around her do. “I only get that, when people are crying and they’re crying for long enough and they’re crying desperately enough. Then I’m like, ‘I’m feeling your pain now. Now I’m starting to cry,’” she said.
When asked if she just wants to be a normal high schooler again, she said, “Sometimes.” She doesn’t want to think about it too much.
“When you’re thinking too much on the fact — that like, this is what my life should have been, or could have been — nothing’s going to be changed. So there’s no point. And it’s a waste of time, and that is time better used making this revolution,” she said.
Despite her feelings of indecision on Sunday, González told BuzzFeed News Wednesday that she had spoken to her mom, and decided that she will be going to school after all.
González said her mother told her, “There's always going to be a reason not to do something, you have to go to college. Say this does go really big for a really long time — are you going to go back to college? You won't get the same experience in college at 30 that you will when you're 18, and you're going to need that degree no matter how many people know your name."