Sydney Clark gently closed the door to her dark, quiet room and lit a small Christmas candle.
Ironic, because Sydney Clark’s hometown, Thousand Oaks, California was just terrorized by fire.
On November 9, 2018, Sydney’s mother, Sarah Clark, called Sydney Clark to ask what she couldn’t live without from home―in case their house burned down. “I asked for my high school diploma, my cap, and then my Polaroids”, Sydney Clark said, “It was a weird question to answer.”
Sydney Clark was sitting on her bed with one leg outstretched in front of her and her fingers awkwardly playing with the top of her maroon knee socks. Her shoulders drooped in her oversized sweater―shrinking her already small frame as she recounted the memory.
For a little over a month now, Sydney Clark has been coping with the stress of having to deal with one disaster after another. Thousand Oaks was home to the Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting on November 7, 2018, which killed twelve people and wounded one other. Then, on November 8, the fires in Southern California known as the ‘Hill Fire’ and the ‘Woolsey Fire’ started tormenting the people of Thousand Oaks. The effects of these tragedies have been long-lasting and Sydney Clark has channeled her pain into activism.
Sydney Clark’s resulting activism has prompted her to write an article about the Borderline shooting on Her Campus to help increase awareness about mass shootings. “The most crucial approach is to never forget the events that occurred on November 7th, 2018. We cannot forget the victims and the lives they led. We must honor them every day,” Sydney Clark writes in her article.
Sarah Clark mentioned that the shooting had a much more profound impact on Sydney Clark than the fires, “When you’re from California it becomes the norm.” For the shooting, however, Sarah Clark remembered a conversation she had over the phone with Sydney Clark the morning after the event. “She was just so devastated,” Sarah Clark said, taking a deep breath and beginning to cry, “She felt it real bad, and it made me realize, oh my God, this was really bad.” Sarah Clark took a second to gather herself before beginning again, “This really did happen and it really did happen in our neighborhood.” Sarah Clark took another deep breath and then laughed as she remarked that she hadn’t thought she was going to cry.
As Leah Minasian, a friend and floormate of Sydney Clark’s, points out, how could a tragedy like a mass shooting not affect a person―much less two, especially when they are so close to home? Minasian commented that
“While Sydney is still herself, she’s become a little bit more mad at the world.” Minasian thinks Sydney Clark expects more of the world than she used to, she wants to know what people are willing to do for their beliefs.
“I definitely think about it every day”, Sydney Clark says of the shooting, “I’ve made a little note for myself on my desk over there, to call my senator and make change.”
Sydney Clark’s desk is filled with notes from friends, polaroid pictures, a globe with a pushpin everywhere she has been, and, of course, like one might expect of any typical Californian girl, an array of old Kombucha bottles placed in rainbow order. Two long, pink memo notes hang from the top right side of her desk. Other than their color, nothing about the two notes fits in with the rest of her desk―they are the only thing work related. On them are to-do lists and books she wants to read. Second on her to-do list reads ‘call Cal senator’, and number three reads ‘spread awareness about gun violence’.
“I definitely feel like I make it a point every day to remember how grateful I am to be alive, I guess. This definitely changes my perspective on life in general,”
Sydney Clark said.
Sydney Clark wants to ensure her perspective stays changed and she wants to force active change about how our country addresses mass shootings, “Instead of just forgetting about it and trying to move on ourselves”, she said.
According to Minasian, Sydney Clark never talked about doing things like calling her senator before. “It makes me kind of sad, people don’t really realize how much of an impact we could have if we all had the same kind of communal response that Sydney has had,” Minasian said. Minasian thinks that Sydney Clark’s anger comes from her inability to move on at the same pace as others, “The world moved on right after but she didn’t. Even her family moved on but she didn’t.”
Ashley Abbuhl, Sydney Clark’s roommate, provided remarks similar to Minasian’s, “I can see that it just changed her in a way that I’ve never seen anyone changed before. And, as if it couldn’t get any worse, the next day the fires started.”
Marina Pence, a floormate and friend of Sydney Clark’s, has outlined a similar change in Sydney Clark, “She understands more of how people feel when they’re affected by things that they can’t change, especially societal things that aren’t good―like gun violence and like climate change with the fires. And I think it makes her definitely more steadfast in her beliefs about why these things need to change.”
This is a change Sydney Clark’s mother has seen in her as well. “[Sydney Clark] realized that this is something she always cared about and always thought was so important. The fact that it happened in her own backyard though, it’s as if now she thought, gosh this shouldn’t have happened for me to be this passionate about this and to care”, her mother said. According to Sarah Clark, it seems that Sydney Clark has looked at her life and thought, “There are things I care about and they need to be more a part of my everyday life.”
“News like this isn’t alarming at this point in our culture, that’s the saddest part for me,”
Sydney Clark concluded about the shooting. Sydney Clark focused her sadness into vowing never to forget this tragedy like she was seeing it forgotten in the media. “Time fades things and it makes you realize this is why things are the way they are. This is why things don’t change as fast as you wish they would, it’s because of the way our culture is and our media”, she said.
What Sydney Clark is feeling is a real trend. It is only after a mass shooting occurs that people voice their opinions. Immediately after, people may share condolences or post on social media; however, the sentiment rarely lasts long. Soon after, the media coverage and attention fades. According to research conducted by the Washington Post regarding the frequency of Google search keywords, the number of times people research about a mass shooting drops to nearly zero within a week or two after the shooting.
Sydney Clark feels like very few people stick with their fight against gun violence, or even try to remember the last mass shooting. Then, the next mass shooting happens. All of America, once again, gathers around their phone, laptop, or TV screen in horror as they receive instantaneous updates regarding what is happening. They once again offer their condolences, give their opinion on gun control, and then continue on with their lives. It is back to business as usual for the American people until the next school, or movie theater, or church, or concert, or local bar is under gunfire and numerous more lives are lost. This was shocking to Sydney Clark and she began to feel very affected when people started to forget, “It’s just so close to home for me. This is my hometown.”
The shooting has also affected Sydney Clark in ways she may not have realized, her roommates say. Pence noticed that in the weeks following the shooting, Sydney Clark was actively distraught, “She was freaked out by loud noises and startled when someone walked into her room without knocking first.”
Pence thinks the shooting affected how Sydney Clark looks at the world, “She is just more scared.”
Minasian recounts a story Sydney Clark told her weeks after the shooting happened, “She woke up one day and saw a man walking, to her she saw a stranger. She automatically got nervous and began thinking about a shooting.” Sydney Clark, an avid movie goer, and film lover, was at the movies and a character had a gun. There were no shots fired but just seeing the gun left a lasting impression on her. “She just seemed so sensitive and almost paranoid when it came to that stuff,” Minasian said.
“I think it was pretty apocalyptic. It was a living nightmare almost to her. For those two things to happen within 24 hours of each other. It became impossible to digest,”
Abbuhl said of the entire experience.
When Sydney Clark first heard about the shooting, “She was speechless, heartbroken,” according to Abbuhl.
Digesting the news of the shooting was hard for both women.
Abbuhl woke up around 4 am, to see Sydney Clark sitting on her bed staring intently at her computer screen, noting that it seemed almost creepy. But, when Sydney Clark heard about the shooting in the middle of the night she couldn’t resist reading ‘BREAKING NEWS’ from CNN and The New York Times about her hometown.
Sydney Clark immediately texted her mother to inform her. Sarah Clark, however, blew off the text not thinking the shooting was a mass shooting. “I was like, oh, something stupid happened―kind of like on 9/11 when your initial reaction to hearing that a plane flew into a building was that it was a mistake”, Sarah Clark recalled. “I went back to sleep that night with the TV on thinking, well that sucks, but how bad could that be?”
When Sydney Clark woke up, however, her world was in chaos. Text messages circled around her―friends were reaching out to tell her they were okay and alive. When Abbuhl woke up later that morning Sydney Clark informed her of what happened. Immediately afterward, all the blood drained from Sydney Clark’s face like nothing Abbuhl had ever seen before. “She didn’t even know how to communicate it, she only told me facts so I could tell she hadn’t comprehended it. It wasn’t reality quite yet for her”, Abbuhl recalls of the interaction.
Minasian thinks the experience of the shooting in her hometown will no doubt leave a lasting impression on Sydney Clark. Abbuhl says,
“This has lit a fire in her. She’s always been a very politically active person. I think this particular situation made her extra passionate. She’s not going to give up this fight for gun regulation.”
When she finished telling her story, Sydney Clark got up from her bed and daintily walked over to the candle she had previously lit and blew it out. She lingered, looking at the candle’s changed shape after the fire. The candle had changed from the heat of the fire but it was still a candle―just a little different than before.
Sydney Clark has changed from the destruction, pain, and shock of the Borderline shooting and Southern California fires, but as Minasian emphasizes, it is more of a personal growth than a change. “I think the shooting and the fires have changed Sydney in some irreversible ways. To an outsider, she’s still the same Sydney. But to us―to me and her close friends―you can tell she has kind of reevaluated her place in the world after all of this,” Minasian said.