My 10-year-old son slinked into the master bathroom while I was getting ready for work, and I could see something was wrong. I stopped what I was doing and asked him what was up. He hesitated to tell me, then mumbled that he had a nightmare, and was quiet for a minute. I was quiet too — waiting.
He finally started: “I dreamed that someone bad came into our school and….” His voice trailed off.
Somewhere in the 10-inch stack of backpack papers on my desk, I recalled a communication from the school about an intruder/active shooter drill. I asked him if that was what was triggering his fears, and he nodded again without looking up. In a whisper, barely audible, he said, “Mom, I’m scared to go to school.”
His words wrecked me. He knew something new, and dark, about the world, something I had kept from him for as long as possible.
There was a time when we slowly exposed our children to loss of innocence, death, and injustice through literature and history. We made them read Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia, and taught them about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. All in due time.
My son’s fear that something terrible could happen to him in elementary school ripped a hole in my heart. I wanted to tell him it would never — could never, ever — happen here. But I didn’t.
Alex was a first-grader in 2012 when Sandy Hook happened. While I am incapable of comprehending the depth of grief and pain felt by the families destroyed that day, I can tell you the shockwaves were felt thousands of miles away in my small Missouri town. Dropping Alex off at school after that day, the tears fell heavy like bricks out of my face. They could not be restrained. Tears I didn’t want my innocent, happy-go-lucky boy to see. I wept for the families suffering. And I wept for the day Alex found out that the world can be a terrible place.
This week, our local chief of police talked to each of the elementary school classes. At some point, the Sandy Hook shooting came up. I am certain the topic was handled with grace. I have faith that the school took a pragmatic approach to prevent mass hysteria. But despite the careful measures to educate and not terrify, my sensitive, anxious son was still struggling.
I pulled him into my arms, took a moment to collect my thoughts, and this is what I said:
Alex, I love you. Bringing you into this world was the best day of my life. But one of the things that no one prepares parents for is the fears you will have for your children. If I could bubble wrap you, there are days that I would. So I understand your fears. I have fears too. I have fears for you. All I want in this life is to keep you safe, and for you and your brother and sister to live a long and rich life with as little suffering as possible.
The world is full of good people. The majority of people in the world are good, and they want the same for their children and their families. But there are some bad people too. And it is the job of the good people to be on the lookout for the bad ones. This is our lot in life.
Fear is a powerful thing. There are governments that use fear to control their citizens’ lives and every aspect of their thinking. We are lucky to live in a country where we are free to have our own thoughts and express them honestly, but with that freedom sometimes comes chaos as well. You have to decide if this fear is going to own you or if you are going to acknowledge it, and then file it away and march on — and live your life.
In the hospitals where I work, I always say that my job description is to plan for every possible bad scenario for our procedures — implanting pacemakers — to think of all the worst-case scenarios that can and sometimes do happen when you have someone’s heart in your hands. Before each case, I pack a bag and I put it in the corner with all the potential tools for Plan B, C, and D that my doctors might need. But I still go into every case hoping for the best possible outcome and that I will never need to think about that bag. But I know it is there. And I know what tools are in it. And I know how to use them because I have practiced in my head the “If… thens…” of each case.
Your school drill is like that suitcase in the corner. I hope you never have to open it. But if you ever needed to, you would want to know that it’s there, what is inside, and how to use it. I am so sorry that we live in a world where this is necessary. I wish it wasn’t so. I would do anything for it to be not so.
Then I just held him until he nodded quietly, and I encouraged him to get dressed for school. I reiterated that we lived in a lovely community, knowing full well that those truths have never protected anyone. I asked him what data he had to suggest that he was not safe at his school. He said there was none. I felt guilty for reassuring him in a world that I can’t control. And then I kissed him too many times and pulled him tight. And as he walked out to get dressed, I closed the door behind him, and I wept.
Then I pulled myself together, packed my parenting suitcase, put it in the corner, and prayed to every God I could think of that I would never, ever have to use it.