When I was a teenager, my school would receive the occasional bomb threat. The student council donut sale would be relocated to the parking lot farthest from the campus buildings. As the police were arriving, someone would crank up their car’s cassette deck, and we’d dance while crossing our fingers that the Spanish exam or the History essay would be delayed. Not once did I think those violent threats were real. I believed then that if I was with a group, be it classmates, choir members, family, or friends, I was safe. Out on my bicycle after dark, in a parking lot by myself, all bets were off. But the group, the herd, was safe. My children have grown up under a different sun.
For different reasons, neither of my children have ever really loved school. They are both smart enough, have some deep interests, and have some close friends. But they’ve always felt more supported, understood, and indeed safer outside of school. And even though I’ve looked forward to their summers as much as they have, I’ve lived in denial of any threat to them that my husband and I couldn't manage.
My youngest was six when the Sandy Hook massacre happened. I don’t remember which shooting had preceded it, but my older son was aware of such events, and I had to intercept him so that he would not mention it in front of his younger brother. We didn’t want anything to frighten the six year old from school, now that he’d gotten through his pre-school biting phase and was in a class with a teacher he liked. Not being a TV news family, as long as the older brother didn’t talk out of turn, we could successfully control the message. He didn't and we moved forward.
A few years later, that same older brother was an 8th grader and his school did some "unit" in his health class on the Columbine shooting. He came home distraught. Several years before he chose a black trench coat at the army surplus store as a part of a spy costume. “Sounds like you’re looking for something like ‘The Spy who Came in From the Cold’ the proprietor named Sid had said. My son loved the coat and wanted to wear it long after Halloween had come and gone. But I knew the associations people would make so I hid it. “Now I know why you didn't want me to wear that coat,” he said through his 8th grade tears. “Why would people do that, Mom? I don’t want to go to school tomorrow. They’re going to show more video. I can’t stand it.” “Okay, you can stay home. You don’t have to be exposed to that.”
I thought that Sandy Hook would make the difference, that law makers, apparently paralyzed by the NRA’s largesse, would finally say to hell with it, pass some laws, lead us back from the cliff. But they didn’t. Then, Parkland, Florida. Those brave teenagers, bold and pure in their grief and anger. Surely, they could get it done. That’s what I told my then sophomore as he headed out the door in his orange tee-shirt to the school walk out against gun violence. As the years role on I’ve finally accepted that no one - Black, white, brown, gay, straight, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, the very old, the very young –is safe anywhere - the grocery store, the college campus, the night club, the elementary, middle, or high school, the outdoor concert, the movie theater, the workplace, the warehouse, the synagogue, the church, the mosque, the mall, the street – which mass shooting venues have I missed? Oddly, I still hope that some Republican politician will be sickened enough by the bile in their throats to act as they witness yet another shooting. I am disappointed every time.
A few months ago, my current high schooler skipped his afternoon classes. We were furious, verbally loaded for bear when he arrived home. As I launched into my tirade, he stopped me. “Mom, we heard there was going to be a shooting, so we left.” I went silent. Maybe he was playing me. Teenagers do. Would I doubt him in that moment? Not on your life. “If you’re worried about something like that again, call me and I’ll come get you out of school. Go do your work, and I’ll call you for dinner.” It’s not happened again.
A little bird seeks shelter on our front porch from time to time. He showed up last night and I was relieved. I see him as a good omen, an encouragement that we will somehow get these boys successfully to adulthood. But I wonder, as my teenager must too, how we can send him to school the day after something like Uvalde happens. To quote another writer, parents should not have to live like this, in an “as if” world, as if these children, teenagers, elders, adults, indeed any of us are safe, particularly when we know actions to take and policies to enact that will help. And so I wait, send up a prayer for all who suffer, and listen for the front door to open and my boy to come home.