It was a normal Friday morning. I took the kids to school, graded for a few hours, and went to therapy. I grabbed some lunch, picked up P early from preschool “just because,” and came home and read a book to him. I needed to grade more, so P came upstairs to play while I worked. I gave myself a 5 minute Facebook break before I returned to grading.
The first thing I saw in my feed was Nels‘ status update: “These photographs of kids leaving that school shooting in Newtown are just heart-wrenching, their holding hands and screaming/crying.” My heart seized. I immediately went to CNN’s website to see what was going on.
The lunch I had just eaten almost came up.
Children younger than M, and not much older than P, dead. Pictures of wailing children–arms on each other’s shoulders, eyes closed so they wouldn’t see their classmates’ bloodied bodies–being evacuated from the school. A report that an entire class of kindergarteners–children only months older than P–had been annihilated.
I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. I grabbed P, held him to me as tightly as I could, and cried. I was so glad he was home with me. I so badly wanted to drive as fast as I could to M’s school, pull her into my arms, and never let her go.
But I didn’t. I waited until the usual time to pick her up; as I waited, I checked for updates on Newtown and listened to NPR’s live stream, with the volume turned low so P couldn’t possibly hear it in his room. I very consciously did not turn on the TV; I did not want to see those images live, and I certainly didn’t want P to see or hear anything. I tried to figure out what I would tell M and what, if anything, I should say to P.
On the way to M’s school, I turned on the radio in an attempt to distract myself from thinking about the shooting. NPR was already on, and at that very moment the announcer stated there had been a shooting at an elementary school. I quickly turned down the volume all the way, but P immediately asked me, “Why was that man talking about an elementary school?”.
I went with my instincts and gave him a sanitized version of the events: “A bad man went to an elementary school in Connecticut and hurt some kids. That’s why Mama was crying before, because it’s very sad.”
“Was the school in Hartford?” (I guess he really listened when M was practicing her state capitals last month, I thought to myself.)
“No. It was in a town called Newtown. But that place is far away. We’re safe here.”
He started talking about something else, and I changed the channel to a station playing Christmas music before I turned up the volume.
We got to M’s school and walked in to pick her up (as we always do on Fridays). I kept it together pretty well, but when we approached the car, I told P to get in while I talked to M for a few minutes. I had deliberately parked the car behind the school so I wouldn’t have to worry about making her feel self-conscious in front of her peers. Thus, as soon I got P in the car, I grabbed M and held her to me.
Of course, she knew something was wrong. I reassured her everyone she knew and loved was fine, and then I took the direct approach because I didn’t know what else to do. I told her a man had gone into an elementary school in Connecticut and shot and killed several children and adults. She asked, “How many?”, so I told her: 20 children, 6 adults. Her eyes became huge, and she just looked at me.
You know how people say, “I lost my innocence that day?” In that moment, I saw my daughter lose hers. I will never forget that look.
I quickly followed up by saying her school was as safe as possible, that schools have procedures in place to try to prevent shootings like these (she had never really known why they practiced lockdown drills), and that her teacher would do whatever it took to keep her and her classmates safe. Her reply was so sincere that I nearly started crying again: ”I know Mr. S would protect us if somebody tried to come in our classroom and hurt us. He’d lock the doors, turn off all the lights, and tell us to hide. But Mr. S would do anything to keep us safe.”
Dropping off the kids at school this morning was hard. Obviously, I know about Columbine and every horrific school shooting, and those events are frightening enough. But the thought of an adult invading my young children’s school is a new level of terror–and I use that word deliberately. I suspect some of these shooters are choosing the few remaining venues we thought of as safe (movie theaters, elementary schools) to make their acts even more terrifying.
The headmaster of M’s school emailed yesterday, and the director of the lower school emailed today. They are re-evaluating some procedures and safety plans; they have done lockdown drills before, but today they went further. M now knows where she should hide in her classroom so that she would be unseen by a shooter in the hallway. I can’t believe I even have to type those words.
Another painful moment: talking with M about what to do in such a situation. I told her to follow the plan her class has practiced; to not worry about destroying school property in an emergency (if she could escape by throwing a chair through a window and crawling out, then she should not hesitate to break that window or anything else); and if she is told to run by an adult, or if she sees a chance where she could safely run and escape, she should run as fast as she can and not stop–not even if she hears her teacher or friends get hurt. These were words I never thought I’d be saying to my nine-year-old child.
P’s preschool has changed some of their procedures. The school was already very careful, but they’ve taken some additional steps at arrival and dismissal to insure safety. The changes aren’t oppressive, and they’re subtle enough that the children wouldn’t think things changed because something was wrong. I talked with P again this morning, telling him he may hear other kids at school talking about the kids who were hurt on Friday. I told him that the man who did it was dead and couldn’t hurt anybody else, and I said again that his preschool is a safe place as I reminded him of the visible precautions the school takes. I also stressed that his teachers love him and will keep him safe. His response to all of this? “It’s okay, Mom. If a bad guy gets in, I can do karate and save everybody.”
This is Noah Pozner. He just turned six a few weeks ago. He was, like all of the other murdered children, a first grader at Sandy Hook.
When I look at Noah, I see a reflection of my own son. Physically, they don’t look very much alike; Noah’s hair is darker, his eyes lighter. But the tilt of the head, the shape of the face and eyebrows, the haircut, the baby teeth shown in that sweet smile, the pinchable cheeks, the small hands folded in front of him–that is when I see my son’s image.
My son, who is only 17 months younger than Noah Pozner. My son, who has struck the very same pose at the library, just as Noah did for his parents.
This picture reminds me of how vulnerable all of our children are in this insane culture; I don’t know what other word to use to describe what has been going on over the last several years. What happened in Newtown could just as easily have happened in Fort Wayne or any other community in America. When I look at this picture, I am reminded of that fact. I see all of the hope and light that was in this beautiful boy, a boy I have absolutely no connection to at all, and I weep.
I weep for the life–and the 25 other lives–that were snuffed out so cruelly.
I weep for the survivors, the families, and their unbearable, unthinkable pain.
I weep for my children and the sense of safety and security they will never know.
I weep for my country.