Last week, my 6th grade twins were in a school massacre that never happened.
Forty-five minutes before school let out on an otherwise normal Wednesday, I received a robocall from the principal, telling me that a verbal threat had been made, police were at the school, and everything was fine and the “children had been so helpful and brave.” I paused and tried to think straight, calmly. Should I go immediately to the school? Were buses running? WHY were there no details in the message?
My phone started dinging with parent friends wondering the same. We posted questions in our private class Facebook pages and the page administrators immediately took them down, deleting our questions as soon as we typed them. Which of course only made the panic double in our chests, while our phones blew up with rumors and speculation.
When I picked up my kids, they had even less information, and what they did know was contradictory. And because they had been told not to talk about it or text their parents, they assumed the worst and were freaked out, hunkering down in their beds and scared to go back the next day. At home, I paced and called more in-the-know-parents. Eventually I got to someone who gave me verified information I could use to help talk to my children. And then, finally, the principal made a Facebook post that provided clarification.
In the end, there was no actual shooting or even a gun. There was a troubled boy, who’d been the victim of bullying, and who on two different occasions the day before had told other kids that he planned on bringing a gun to school the next day to “kill as many people as possible.” Those students told grown-ups, thank goodness, who called authorities, who took the boy into custody, where he was held and is now presumably moving through some sort of investigation, juvenile justice adjudication, school expulsion, process to find an alternative school, and hopefully some trauma-informed therapy.
The veil is so thin. It’s so thin it doesn’t even exist. And the fact that I am not — and have actually never been — enrobed in it and protected by it never occurs to me, unless one day in crossing the street, I jump back just in time and feel the rush of wind created by the car that almost took me out. I startle, open mouthed and frozen, as if that rush of wind was my own soul, leaping out of me for a terrifying instant before yo-yo’ing back into place.
In this case, my soul – and those of my children – were blown three feet away from our bodies by the near miss, while we all stood with our hair standing on end from our separate curbs.
I don’t harbor any illusions that my children’s school can truly keep them safe, or even alive. They cannot.
I had been angry by way the incident was communicated, but I soon realized that my fear and anger were misdirected. Beneath the way our non-event was shared, there was something far more destabilizing and unsettling. Were it just a one-off freakish near miss with a car, we would catch our breath, hug, and move on with a little more awareness of the veil and appreciation for our fragility. But this was different, and the unease clung to me all evening.
Online, I clocked a subtle, but divergent perspective being put forth during the parent chatter. “It was a verbal threat that was handled appropriately.” “Schools have protocols and drills in place for this reason.” Well-meaning parents kept repeating a refrain that calmly emphasized to the rest of us that this was a one-off threat by one individual. A freak thing that was appropriately apprehended and handled. “Thank you for keeping our kids safe,” people wrote to the principal.
Even my husband said, “Well, the kid is in custody and the school handled it, right?” While all of this was true if we view this as a rare occurrence, it takes on an eerie dissonance when we read the incident in keeping with what it actually is: a national epidemic. This is the context within which we are raising our children, marked with a current cultural lingua franca about mass shootings. “I’m going to come back with a gun and kill as many people as I can.”
The alarming rise of school shootings – along with church shootings, theater shootings, concert shootings, post office shootings, festival shootings, grocery store shootings and Waffle House shootings – has stripped down and transformed all sense of what it was to attend events, pray, go to work, have fun, and go to school now in America. We occasionally lament, “It’s so sad, these mass shootings happen so frequently now, then get minimal news coverage and we barely register them anymore.” But what is even more lamentable is that the remorsefully numb response appears to be the same when it almost happens to our own kids
I don’t fault the school administration or the parents discussing the incident. The lack of discussion and overt outrage can only be fairly read as symptoms of a greater national disease, wherein we’ve so adapted to our new pathology that even a close call doesn’t shift how we respond. Maybe to actually express outrage and shock would painfully call too much into question. Maybe people felt too numbed and defeated by the frequency of mass shootings combined with the lack of any real legislative change, to feel like voicing their concerns would matter. Or maybe many others were like me, quietly seething at home alone, unconnected from a wider discussion. But it is a double shock to realize it might have to be an actual shooting, bullets bouncing off of hallway doors and nicking panicked adolescents, to illicit collective attention.
Protocols, procedures, drills, and counseling services are good, and maybe even offer a helpful scrim of safety. But no child is safe in our current culture.
I, like the many other parents, am grateful the principal helped keep my kids safe. But I don’t harbor any illusions that my children’s school can truly keep them safe, or even alive. They cannot. Their protocols, procedures, drills, and counseling services are good, and maybe even offer a helpful scrim of safety. But no child is safe in our current culture.
The Parkland students who formed March for Our Lives and the Sandy Hook parents who created the recent “Back to School” PSA, both aimed at sensible gun control reform, are not doing this to seek justice for their dead children and friends. They are doing it because they are on the other side of the veil, where they can see with crystalline clarity that we are all teetering on the curb, wobbling between disaster and near-miss, depending on the wind.
Every school in this country is Almost Parkland. We need to be able to pull back the veil from the Almost place, from the place of active shooter drills and rattling, non-events. We can, I believe, start a clear-eyed conversation from the curb.
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