[I hope I remember this story accurately because I honestly don’t remember if I experienced this moment or if my twin sister did and then related it to me. We have that problem more often than you might think.]
My grandmother–who has ten children–and one of her more than 75 grandchildren were talking about pregnancy and babies. The granddaughter said, “Grandma, I can’t believe you did all of that and also lost five babies (to miscarriage).” My grandmother became misty-eyed and looked into the distance, “Actually,” her voice swelled with emotion, “I lost all of my babies.” She blinked at the surprising tears and smiled in an apologetic way. “I lost the babies who turned into adults too.”
The granddaughter looked at her precious infant, her first child who cooed and babbled while waving fists about, oblivious to much of the surrounding world. Her own vision blurred as she realized that whether all went mostly well or whether tragedy struck, the loss of her baby was inevitable.
Today my husband and I carried on a dialogue interspersed with caring for home, family, career, and projects. We discussed our views on how to prevent gun violence in schools. Our home has a very open layout, and I forget to close doors, so our kids heard bits and pieces. That might explain why our three-year-old crafted a gun from tinker toys and offered to shoot the bad guys for us.
In the afternoon sunlight streaming through the “Day Room” window, the three eldest children played Legos. They had just finished cleaning up those ubiquitous foot-stabbers, which of course meant it was time to dump them out again. They invented dragon-drawn aircraft while their nine-month-old brother showed off his newly developed crawling skill. He repeatedly dived for Legos, desperate to get the choking hazard into his mouth, just for a little taste. He also gained his first tooth this week, so perhaps he planned to chew on it for a while first. In any case, I intervened repeatedly until I decided it was my husband’s turn to corral him in our room.
When my husband came to get him, I asked if I had his permission to share his view on arming teachers as suggested by President Trump. This is how I sum up our opposing views: Him–armed teachers would be a deterrent to mass shooters; Me–are we really advocating for more guns in our schools? He said that about summed it up.
Our children were sitting right there, so the two in elementary school rehearsed to us what they do in an active shooter scenario. It was like listening to children describe the steps required to prepare for a visit from Santa: get in your room, stay quiet, and don’t peek out of the door. The terror in my heart only increased as my daughter described what a person stuck in a hallway–where all the nearby classroom doors had been locked–would need to do. “Just run to the nearest bathroom, lock yourself in a stall, and stand on the toilet.” Stall doors don’t even provide adequate privacy, and I’m asking them to shield my children from armor-piercing rounds?
I picked my jaw up off the floor before my kids saw what the bubble-piercing truth had done. Despite locked front doors and a gatekeeper at the front office, my kids could encounter an active shooter while doing any one of the myriad carefree or tedious tasks that children do in school. But straight through the teeth my rattled jaw still housed, I lied to them. I cheerfully concluded, “It sounds like your school is safe and you guys are ready for anything, even if these things you drill for are unlikely to ever happen.”
I have read scores of emails, articles, Facebook posts, opinion pieces, first-hand accounts, and so on about what should be done to make our schools safer. And as much as I don’t like it, even after I do all I can to make the laws match my logic and whatever empirical data is out there (thank you Dickey), violence can absolutely reach my children. I am sick that my children are considered targets to someone.
I don’t believe in arming teachers while schools often can’t afford to adequately instruct and reach our children as it is. I am thrilled just to have a teacher for my first-grader who sees past his ADHD and works toward his success every day. Give that woman a raise and a gift card to a day spa. Don’t ask her to carry a gun in order to prove that she cares about my first-grader. According to Whitney Houston, she may have already given him the greatest love of all. And I’m not saying that to sound hokey. I mean it.
Arming teachers is like waiting until my crawling son is pulling the heavy bookshelf on himself to wonder if I could have secured that better, or placing my best cutlery in my lowest unlocked drawer and waiting for him to explore that corner of the kitchen before wondering if I could have limited his access since he clearly could not handle something so dangerous. Do I want my son to be free? Absolutely. Do I want him to survive his freedom long enough to make some use of it? You bet my life I do.
My older children often appear careless in the way they leave the door to the basement stairs ajar or the scissors lying about or their candy strewn about (bless those holidays), but all they need is a reminder to look out for their brother, and they are tackling that hazard like Olympic curlers scrubbing the ice.
I want American voters to treat public education the same way. Get on target: find out where the money comes from and where it goes. Get to work: take an interest in more than just grades and homework–find out what your school and district are struggling with and be a part of the solution. And see it through: stop treating school funding like your relative in and out of rehab who always needs a loan–this is our future we’re investing in! When it’s time to support our schools, don’t just show up to the PTA fundraisers (please, let’s make those obsolete!), show up at the voting booth.
But suppose I don’t get the chance to make that difference? I ponder these words from a statement by the Petty family, who lost a daughter in the Parkland, Florida school shooting this month: “We are grateful for the knowledge that Alaina is a part of our eternal family and that we will reunite with her. This knowledge and abiding faith in our Heavenly Father’s plan gives us comfort during this difficult time.”
I want to be able to make the same statement were I to lose a child, particularly if caused by a killer. I want to surrender that feeling that I have to control as many dangerous variables as possible in order to protect my children from harm. I want to feel free enough to love them right now without worry for all that could go wrong.
[The following four paragraphs have been edited to make more sense, I hope.]
The only way I can truly keep my children safe is to first remember that I don’t get to keep them as little ones forever. As children, they will become a memory whether they are taken from me violently and senselessly, whether I make a mistake and tragedy results, or whether they grow up and leave childhood behind. I need to make my peace with impending loss so that I can embrace them today and prevent harm in every way I can while still allowing them to achieve the goal of childhood: to grow up. What I am safeguarding is not my children as they are moment to moment but my relationship to them. And that is beyond the reach of every power on earth.
While I work toward that goal, I will recognize that for many parents, they see this life as all there is, or at least they may not consider their parent-child relationship as one that continues in an afterlife. I support other parents who want to see their children reach adulthood: by advocating for laws that make sense–even if they don’t change a dang thing. For example, too much sugar intake contributes to all sorts of disease states over time. I would love to stop my kids from eating sugar, but what would banning it do? That would last as long as they never left this house. Or had doting grandparents. Or a father. But I can still make some rules: no treats before lunch, your dessert portion matches how much dinner you ate, no candy for snack time, and clean up your wrappers or you can wear them in your socks.
Laws, effective or not, at least show a desire to keep our children safe. They’re like keeping away from my crawling son the choking hazards, poisons, sharp knives, suffocation and strangulation materials, and the pull-down-on-himself objects. We will make mistakes. One might even prove deadly, but I want to know that we make a conscious effort to keep him safe as he learns to navigate the world.
And difficult as it may be for me, I accept that some parents will feel better knowing that an armed guard is at the school their child(ren) attend. What I see as a giant bottle of super glue for when my son slices his hand on a Japanese work knife, they see as being prepared for the worst case scenario. And who knows? Perhaps I will be thanking those parents some day. It is a sickening game of odds we play by having children and trying to help them survive, and hopefully learn what matters, in this beautiful and horrible world.
My memory echoes with the voices of my mother and grandmother, who can both recite a poem about a little boy who dies from a heart defect. The same heart defect that kept my niece from reaching even her first birthday. I recite the words to myself, but instead of a bluish tint to the skin, I imagine the blue eyes of my children:
Little Boy Blue by Eugene Field (1850-1895)
The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and staunch he stands;
The little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket molds in his hands.
Times was when the little toy dog was new
And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.
“Now, don’t you go till I come,” he said,
“And don’t you make any noise.”
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
He dreamed of the pretty toys;
And as he was dreaming, an angel song
Awakened our Little Boy Blue—
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
But the little toy friends are true!
Aye, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place—
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
And the smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting these long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue
Since he kissed them and put them there.
Can you hear the heartbreak of a parent too soon parted from their child? Do you feel the sacred trust bestowed by a child on the people in their world, even people we think of as toys? Can you hear my heart screaming at the world for taking that toy soldier and wanting him to be more than a toy in my children’s lives? For making me want to fall down and embrace the next toy dog I trip over instead of hurling it toward my daughter’s room because its annoying presence reminds me of a child who didn’t follow instructions? When a child’s heart is stilled forever, their treasures become a tangible thread securing our heart to a memory.
[I wear contact lenses and live in a dry environment. If ever I need to moisten my eyes so I can see better while driving, I just imagine walking into my child’s whimsically messy room after learning of his or her death. The things left undone with the innocent expectation that there will always be more time can overcome even the most potent anti-depressant in my need to weep.]
When my children are only a memory in this life, I want to know I did all I could for them. And right now that means treasuring them, regarding their treasures with more than annoyance, and fighting with everything I have to make this world a place worth sticking around in. But if I can’t do that, then I will stand firm, awaiting the touch of a little hand and the smile of a little face.