Two days after she survived a mass shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Emma Gonzalez received a call from a teacher who had seen some television interviews she had done.
The 18-year-old senior learned that a school board member wanted to speak with her. She began dreading the call.
“Of course, my initial thought as a student was, ‘A school official wants to talk to me? What did I do wrong? Oh god!'” she recalls to PEOPLE.
Instead, she was invited to speak the following day at an anti-gun rally in Fort Lauderdale, about a 45-minute drive away from her home. A handful of students would be joining her. Unsure of what she wanted to say, she decided to get some sleep before writing her speech.
She woke up at 6:30 am Saturday and sat down to write. When she gets in the zone, she says,”my fingers can do no wrong.” Taking her speech with her in the car, she edited it until the moment she walked up to the podium.
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“Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving,” she said at the start of her eleven-minute speech, which can be watched here. “But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”
Her speech immediately went viral. Journalists, politicians and celebrities began retweeting her speech. Her name became the No. 1 trending hashtag.
“I was getting incredible energy from the crowd,” she said about the moment. “I wanted people to feel what I was feeling.”
Since then, Emma and a group of classmates, some who she didn’t know very well, have bonded over their grief and their commitment to change the gun laws.
They’ve spent countless hours since Wednesday huddled in each other’s homes, organizing their thoughts and goals about what they want to see changed and how to do it.
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On Sunday, they announced “March For Our Lives,” a march on Washington, D.C. as well as across the country. One of their biggest goals is to make sure politicians supported by the National Rifle Association are not elected during the upcoming midterms.
“We don’t want these people in charge of us anymore,” Emma said. “We have to be the politicians in this instance. We have to be the people calling for change and demanding a change.”
Before Wednesday, like any high school senior, she was counting down the days until graduation. “I had 110 more days,” she said. She was preparing to go to a nearby college and enter the science field. But after Wednesday’s tragedy, everything has changed.
“We want to go back to school,” she says, but she doesn’t know when that will be. “We need to go back in session to show that this school will not be defined by its past. This school will be defined by its future.”