America, This Is NOT Normal
“Hey, Allison, my dad just called. He said the school is on lockdown.”
Those words cut through the air like a knife. “What?” I tried to calmly reply, hoping that she meant a lockdown drill, not actually lockdown lockdown. “Yeah, he said that he went to pick up my sister and the school is surrounded by police with machine guns and they aren’t letting anyone in or out.”
Breathe. Breathe. I can’t breathe.
“He said that someone said that someone’s in the school.”
Oh my God. This is real. This is real. Oh my God. Oh my God. Stop shaking. You’ll scare the kids.
“A machine gun? At my school?!” My Kindergartener rounded the corner. “What’s going on? Why would police have machine guns at my school?”
“Oh, don’t worry, honey, I’m sure it’s nothing. This is grown-up talk. Let’s find a movie for you to watch!”
Did she know? Did I fool her? Does she know that all I can see in my mind is the inside of classrooms, hallways, and her brother dead on the floor? His teacher and his sweet friends next to him?
In Harry Potter, Mrs. Weasley’s greatest fear is losing her loved ones. When she encounters a boggart, a creature that can instantly change into what she fears the most, it turns into the corpse of one of her children, then another, and another, then her husband. She is paralyzed and sobbing and can’t escape from it.
I don’t think I’ve ever fully understood that passage. That changed on April 13, 2017. On April 13, 2017, I was Mrs. Weasley looking helplessly at my sweet boy, and then all of the kids who I have known since before they could write their own names, kids whom I love as much as my own. Each one of them more precious than the other. I saw the teachers, huddled in their classrooms, trying to keep twenty wiggly Kindergarteners silent in a closet. I saw the secretary, who knows every child in the school by name and their parents and what class they’re in without having to look it up on a computer. Was she okay? She would have been the first one to see him, right? What about our young, energetic principal? What about our nurse who always calls me when one of them gets a bump on the playground? What about … what about … I started to pray.
Please, God. Please let them all be okay. Please protect them. Please keep them safe. Please. Please. Please.
I didn’t know what else to do. I wish I could say that it made me feel better, but sometimes you’re so far down the rabbit hole that trying to crawl out of it seems an impossible task. I called my mother and asked her to pray. I tried not to let my voice shake too much.
I looked out my window toward the school and saw my neighbor walking back from the school with his daughter. He got her. She’s safe. (Thank you, God!) What about the others? Are they letting them out slowly? Did some get out? Are some still trapped in the building? Where’s my son?
Flight kicked in. Well, it might not have been flight, but it was definitely “I can’t sit in this house for one more minute. I have to DO something.” I didn’t know exactly where I was going or what I was going to do, but I put my shoes on and ran down to the street to ask him what was going on. (For the record, I did think to go to the school, but stopped myself because I had enough sense to realize that my walking into a potentially dangerous situation isn’t helpful to anyone.)
“Everything’s fine now, I guess,” he said. “Yeah, I got up there and the police were everywhere and wouldn’t let me up to the school. They all had their AK-47s out. I didn’t even know our police force had those. Did you? Anyway, they said that there was a shady guy walking around the school, so they closed everything down. They said that they made sure everything is clear, so it’s back to normal over there. The kids are on the playground and everything. Crazy.”
I got home and gave my babysitter a cheery update that everything was fine before going upstairs to finish what I was working on and completely sobbing.
He’s fine. They’re all fine.
Relief flooded over me, but I still couldn’t breathe. I was still shaking.
Then anger hit me. Boiling, blinding, white-hot rage.
How is this our world? This shouldn’t be our world. The fact that I felt lucky (lucky!!!) that my child wasn’t killed at school is seriously fucked up. (And I don’t curse lightly.) How has this happened? How is this our reality? I realize that all across the world, children face worse than this every day (That’s not okay either!), but the fact that this has become America’s new normal made me almost irrationally angry.
I hate that my next thought was to keep my daughter home from school that afternoon (we have only half-day Kindergarten in our area). I actually considered keeping her from learning because of my lingering fear. No. Absolutely not. I refuse to be ruled by fear. I refuse to let that kind of thinking dictate my life.
Many years ago, when I was working in the financial industry, I sat down with the CEO of our (major financial) firm, who happened to also be on then-President George W. Bush’s security council. (Fun fact: I remember him floating the idea of TSA Pre-check back in 2002.) One thing he said that I will always remember was that he wasn’t worried about terrorism in airplanes (which was a pretty shocking thing to hear so soon after September 11). He was worried about it happening at the mall or at a McDonald’s. To paraphrase, he said, “Nothing will stop a bustling society in its tracks like the fear of living your everyday life.” I remember that he said that if we ever reached a point where people didn’t feel safe going to the mall, we have a real problem.
Welcome to the future, Mr. CEO. The day that I don’t feel safe sending my children to school is here. But guess what? I’m giving the finger to fear. I’m going to live my life and I’m going to make damned sure that my kids live theirs.
Since it seems that our government can't seem to come to a consensus on how to solve this problem and, therefore, is doing nothing, that's the best I can do. I drove my Kindergartener to school and hugged her extra tightly before telling her cheerily, “Have a great day! I love you!” I say the same thing every day, but that day I felt like a General, sending a soldier into battle. A soldier who is five years old and loves rainbow unicorns and extra stories at bedtime. It crossed my mind that, on any given day, the last thing my child might hear from me is, “I love you.”
It turns out that the suspicious person who was walking around the school was carrying a folded-up camera tripod over his shoulder, which looked like an assault rifle. There was never a threat, never a danger, but the idea that there could have easily been one is what is so terrifying, mainly because this has become such a normal American event. This is where we are.
This isn’t our neighborhood’s first lockdown. Our high school had one last year. I texted my friend who is a teacher there after it was over to say, “I’m glad you’re safe. This is not in your job description.” In that particular instance, a student had found a bullet casing on the floor of the cafeteria. My sister-in-law who just resigned from teaching in a Texas high school told me that they had been on lockdown three or four times in as many years, with kids accidentally forgetting to leave their hunting gear at home from the weekend.
Everyone was fine, but, when you’re in lockdown, all you know is that you’re in lockdown. I thought about my teacher friends who have families of their own, who would do whatever it takes to shield the children they teach, even if it meant leaving their own children motherless. For now, they’re all safe. I pray to God it stays that way.
Shortly after that, a high school kid was arrested in our neighboring town (our rival high school) with a veritable arsenal under his bed, completely shocked parents, and definite plans to walk into school and kill his schoolmates and teachers. A classmate overheard him making some strange statements and called the police.
In the case of the would-be killer, his parents didn’t know what was going on, and not for a lack of being involved (despite the rush to judgment by other parents in our community). They noticed their son was withdrawing and thought that they might be hovering too much, so they pulled back. They didn’t want to smother him. Teenagers are tricky. Maybe if they gave him some space and some responsibility, he would come around. They saw packages arriving, but trusted their son when he said that it was equipment for a band. You want to trust your children. You don’t want to think you child is capable of something like Columbine or Newtown. As I understand it, thanks to online sales gun loopholes, he was able to buy his weapons easily. Today’s kids are tech savvy. Don’t be fooled; it could happen to any of us.
The real hero of the story is the classmate. Her actions saved countless lives that day. She’s the real Wonder Woman. She didn’t let insecurity (“What if it’s nothing and they find out I was the one who called the police? Will anyone still be my friend?”) or apathy (“Whatever. Someone else will probably call.”) stop her from taking action. We hear, “If you see something, say something.” We need to extend that to, “If you see something or hear something or if something doesn’t seem right to you, say something.”
April 13, 2017, may have been my first lockdown, and, as much as I pray it will be the last, I’m preparing for the next. I will continue to actively choose to live my life without fear, teaching my children to stay vigilant and to trust their guts, working to keep my communication with them open, and saying, “America, this is not normal!” As long as I have breath in my body, it will never be. No child should be afraid to go to school and no parent should be afraid to send them.
Constant vigilance, friends.