Samantha Fuentes is one of the many students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who has shown incredible poise since the February 14 shooting at her school, speaking at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and, last night, onstage at the PEN America Literary Gala. That doesn’t mean, though, that she still doesn’t get nerves.

“I think sometimes I forget I got shot. And I think that things are easy sometimes, and then I put on the back burner and pretend like everything’s gonna be fine, and then you throw up onstage for the second fucking time in a row,” Fuentes said when she returned to the stage after falling ill, accompanied by her mother. She received a standing ovation from a crowd that included Cynthia Nixon; Rosanne Cash; Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones; the Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis; writer Gay Talese; painter Kehinde Wiley; and novelists Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, and Stephen King.

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King was the chief honoree at the PEN Literary Awards, held at the American Museum of Natural History, and his speech was the focus of a night where the worlds of publishing, journalism, and Hollywood typically get together to celebrate and discuss the weightier issues facing them. Celebrities are usually on hand to introduce the winner of the award, but this year the introducer was also a friend: Morgan Freeman, who has known King since he starred in The Shawshank Redemption in 1994, commented on the way King has “riveted, terrified, and inspired generations of readers.”

In his remarks, King brought up a First Amendment issue that’s less often discussed in this time of renewed attacks on journalists: banned and challenged books in the classroom. Talking about his children and grandchildren, he said, “We urge them all to read banned books, because—I have said this over and over and over again—what the people in charge don’t want you to know, that’s what you have to find out.”

At the first PEN gala since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, Atwood discussed her novel The Handmaid’s Tale while she presented the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which is usually awarded to a writer who has been punished or imprisoned for their work. This year’s award went to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two journalists who are currently incarcerated in Myanmar for a report on a massacre of a Rohingya community. Members of their families, including Kyaw Soe Oo’s young daughter, were in New York to receive the award on their behalf.

Fuentes, along with fellow Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky and 17-year-old activist Zion Kelly, received the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, created by the organization to honor activists who demonstrate bravery in speaking to the public.

The organization’s executive director, Suzanne Nossel, used her fiery remarks to explain how these students exemplify the values of her 96-year-old organization. “Free expression amid controversy isn’t actually cost free,” Nossel said. “These young activists have been called paid actors, endured scurrilous accusations, vitriolic insults, and death threats.”

The Parkland kids weren’t the only ones in the audience inspiring hope. After Atwood left the stage, Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega delivered remarks about the effect PEN had on his own life. He won the Freedom to Write award in 2013 and was only recently released from the prison where he served a six-year sentence for criticizing the government on his blog. “We live in the age of paradox,” he said. “On the one hand, we have countries, amongst them the U.S., home of the First Amendment, where freedom of expression has come to be taken for granted, and on the other, Ethiopia, my country, where the freedom to express oneself without restraint, without reprisal, is still an elusive ideal, still distant as the stars.”

But before the night was over, there was sadness to be shared. At the after-party across the street at Calle Ocho, Nossel stood on a few chairs to announce the death of Philip Roth.