The first Friday of every month at my daughter’s school, parents are invited into the classroom to see whatever project the kids have got going on in class. I go in to see my daughter’s work, to chat with the other kids (most of whom know me pretty well), and sometimes to read for them as a group. Last week there was a class “publishing party,” where all the parents and students walk around silently reading the “books” the kids have written. (They’re just two or three pages of story plus a hand-drawn cover, but still. Calling them books makes the kids feel proud. And in New York, part of your schooling is learning how to attend publishing parties and art openings — for the free food, if nothing else.) I walked in a few minutes after the party started — because I can’t read much of anything without having a cup of coffee first — so in-between dropping my daughter off at school and coming back for the party I grabbed a latte from the joint down the street.
“Ooh, it’s so quiet in here!,” I bellowed jauntily upon arrival, proving the first few sips of caffeine had set in. “Fancy party, huh?,” I nudged. Some parents and kids smiled and giggled, and I started saying my hellos, asking the kids if they had fun trick-or-treating and commenting on the beautiful book covers as I breezed around the room. I read my daughter’s story and a couple by her friends. The teacher asked us all to leave comments for the authors, and I had just finished writing one when suddenly one of the women from the main office broke in over the loudspeaker.
“ATTENTION. ATTENTION. WE ARE NOW ON A SOFT LOCKDOWN.”
In hindsight, I’m sort of surprised I didn’t just pee my pants right there. A soft lockdown? For what? What was happening? A shock wave of adrenaline and fear ran quickly from my heart up into my head and back down into my feet. I was so surprised, I cried out to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and I may have even accidentally given him a middle name that I can’t type here. I heard myself and quickly said, “I’m sorry” to the mom standing next to me, even though I don’t think any of the kids heard me. The teacher instructed us to take lockdown position, so everyone, giant parents and tiny children alike, crammed into the corner of the classroom and huddled against the closets waiting to die. Well, I was waiting to die. No one knew I was waiting to die, of course. I was smiling at the kids and reassuringly rubbing the ankles of the parents sitting cross-legged next to me. I looked at my daughter and thought, “Thank God we’re together,” then thought, “You know, everything will be fine,” immediately followed by, “Of course this is happening! It’s a beautiful day! And there’s a man with a gun!” and everything in-between. I looked at a mom friend of mine across the room and we had a complete conversation using just our eyes.
Me: BIG EYES (What is happening?)
Her: BIG EYES (I don’t know!)
Me: SLIGHTLY SMALLER LOOKING UP EYES (Is this real?)
Her: SCRUNCHY EYES followed by BIG EYES (I think it’s a drill but I don’t know!)
Except she may have known, because the teacher mentioned to some of the parents before I got there that there was going to be a LOCKDOWN DRILL. No one told me! I THOUGHT IT WAS REAL. It felt real. And let me tell you something …
It. Was. Terrifying. But also strangely peaceful. But terrifying. Like when there’s bad turbulence on a flight. Or when it’s snowing and your car slides a bit. You feel that slow-motion time lift during which you think, “This may be the end but probably not but hey just in case, it’s been fun and I’m okay with it.”
But before I could start humming “Non, je ne regrette rien” silently to myself, the familiar voice of our parent coordinator burst over the airwaves. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE SOFT LOCKDOWN HAS BEEN RELEASED. Parents, if you’d like to join us downstairs in the cafeteria to talk about school safety, we welcome you there now.”
So it was a drill. It had been a drill all along. The kids knew it was coming, most of the other parents knew it was coming, I was the only one in the room who sat through it as if it were real. And let me tell you the only lesson I took away from that experience: guns are bad. Which is the same lesson I learned when my grandparents killed themselves with guns years ago and the same lesson I learned after Columbine and every school shooting and mass shooting and airport shooting and mall shooting since. There have been too many. We all know it. And yet, we defend guns. We try to feebly argue that what will stop guns is more guns, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. We don’t think at all about what contributes to gun violence, not just the mental health issues of shooters but what is going on in the society at large. Where we’re failing people.
At the safety meeting in the cafeteria, we talked about how failing to plan means planning to fail. About how our kids are part of a preparedness pilot program that has made them so good at running these drills. About how the drills don’t scare them, they think of them just like fire drills, and because our kids are prepared for an emergency, should one ever happen, they will hopefully be safe.
No one said anything about guns during the meeting. Not our wonderful guidance counselor who ran the discussion, not any of the parents. The word gun was not mentioned once. Intruder, yes. But not gun. We couldn’t bring ourselves to say it, because then we’d have to imagine it, an intruder with a gun, in our school. And that is possibly the worst thing that could ever happen, ever. So instead we sat there planning, preparing, asking questions, nodding our heads, probably all knowing that there isn’t really anything anyone can use to fight bullets. Except love. Fighting a gunman with love has worked before, unplanned. But what are we going to do, have the kids run Antoinette Tuff drills? (“Okay, children, time to practice saying ‘I love you’ to the face of a dangerous stranger.”) That doesn’t seem practical, does it? And yet Malala Yousafzai practiced saying just that sort of thing to her enemies when she was being hunted by the Taliban. She was prepared to face danger with love. But this is America, and “feelings” aren’t exactly our strong suit. So instead we have our kids run the occasional lockdown drill, just as their grandparents ran air raid drills, and we try gracefully to incorporate the fear of unhinged loneliness launching shrapnel into public spaces into the rhythm of our daily lives. Because we’re all afraid to talk about the real problems: guns, desperation, isolation, despair.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against preparedness. I was a Girl Scout. I just also wish America would start working on prevention.
Photo credit: iStock