A few days ago, hundreds of thousands of Colorado students stayed home from school. In an unprecedented move, multiple districts shut down because of a threat in the area on the 20-year anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. It was jarring, disconcerting, surreal, and even frightening. I’ll provide a link to the news story here, but am going to skip over the details. The law enforcement officials from many different agencies came together to make a decision about this– it’s certainly not the first time individuals obsessed with Columbine have been on their radar. The public will perhaps never know all the details that led them to the conclusion that this threat was different, that it was credible, and that danger to children was imminent; I respect and trust the decision they made to close schools. I know it was not taken lightly.
There were of course multiple perspectives shared on community message boards, some rolling their eyes or calling the closure an overreaction, other people complaining that their children missed out on outdoor lab. The usual arrogance of parents presuming to know and understand a complex police situation was certainly present, as was the subsequent arguing about whether the school closures were warranted.
But I felt grateful knowing they were acting so deliberately. This type of massive closure has never happened before, and I was impressed and moved by the press conference featuring security personnel, local sheriffs, and the superintendent of schools. Their care for students and parents and their commitment to safety was apparent.
I was surprised, however, by my own reaction. April is always a busy and stressful month for me professionally, and my first thought when my husband woke me to tell me school had been cancelled was relief. I got a day off to get more work done! And go back to sleep! Having arrived home late the night before, I missed a lot of the details of the case and in my delight to spend the morning in bed, I neglected to catch up on the facts.
When I found out from my close friend that the suspect had traveled out of state, obtained a weapon, was obsessed with Columbine and believed to have a legitimate intent to harm students, I felt instantly nauseous and tears sprung to my eyes. My preoccupation with my “day off” was negated by a truth I had deliberately wanted to avoid allowing to permeate my awareness: school shootings are our reality. It wasn’t the first time I felt brought to my knees by this realization. Last year when there was a bomb threat, I was faced with the decision of whether to send my children to school (don’t let fear win!) or keep them home (but what if it’s real this time?). When my oldest was in third grade, there was an “accidental lockdown” and neither the students nor teachers knew it was unintentional. The announcement did not say “this is a drill” as usual, and my daughter’s teacher barricaded the door and students sobbed that they didn’t want to die. This is our world.
Last week, as I led preschoolers in a song that involves curling up like a flower bud and then blossoming, one child said, “This is what we do when we practice staying safe!” I felt sick as I remembered they had practiced a lockdown drill the day before. This is our world. And now, I stood in the street with tears streaming down my face as once again it was forced into my mind: There are people who want to kill children. This is our world.
In a piece about last year’s bomb threat that I haven’t even published yet, I questioned, “What degree of brokenness, ignorance, carelessness, or hatred, drove a person to make this threat?” While I pondered this on Wednesday as we waited for more information, I have to admit: I didn’t really care. Not in that moment. My first concern was my children’s safety. Period. Whether this individual was mentally ill or filled with hate because of background of abuse was irrelevant at the moment: safety eclipsed it all.
Two of my closest friends came over with their children on our “day off.” The children played happily in the backyard, oblivious, while we watched the news, cried, raged, and asked questions nobody had the answer to. We expressed grief that our children don’t get to have the 1980s childhood that we had, free from the fear of school shootings. We were angry that we had to have these conversations with them. My oldest daughter already knew nearly every detail, as her friends texted her iPod in the early morning hours before I even woke up. We spoke generally about safety to our 2nd grader, knowing full well we would have to fill her in at some point. I learned the hard way when my oldest was in 1st grade, and within two months, Jessica Ridgeway was murdered and Sandy Hook took the lives of students exactly her age. We tried to shelter her, but she went to school and found out details, real details, anyway.
After my friends and I had taken time to process our own emotions, we called the kids inside to talk to them. We let them ask questions, express their fear. We reassured them that we would never send them to school if we didn’t know they would be safe: one of those parent lies that needs to be told. Of course we don’t know. We know damn well that we can never guarantee their safety. We held their hands, and absorbed their fears, and listened as they supported one another. I listened to a nine-year-old earnestly reassure a seven-year-old that those lockdown drills are really helping to keep them safe!
Then we turned to ritual: smudging the house and each other with sage and Palo Santo, drawing cards, spraying our energetic fields and going full-on witchy woman. We felt a bit healed, we felt validated, we felt seen and supported. It was a beautiful, inspiring part of a heavy and overwhelming day. This is what we should be doing: loving and supporting each other, witnessing and comforting each other, sharing and allowing that deep, all-consuming fear and grief that we cannot guarantee our children’s safety in this world.
And then I turned to Facebook and saw the opposite of that love and support. I saw parents judging other parents and even children for their reaction to this fear and sadness. I saw women dismiss and shame each other for different coping strategies and perspectives. It seems that moral superiority is inevitable in times of tragedy and chaos.
While I love the camaraderie and support of social media during crises, I suppose this is the flip side: Putting your most vulnerable self out there only to have someone twist your words, attack your parenting, and judge your when you are at your most fragile.
And it made me so sad. Why can we not allow each other the grace and space to process these huge emotions? Why can we not accept that each of us processes and handles it differently? Calling someone else out as being judgmental is STILL a judgment in and of itself: you can’t have it both ways, and it is beyond hypocritical to throw stones and perpetuate the cycle during an intense community crisis like this. The reality of school shootings is dark, ugly, and complicated. And dark, ugly, and complicated feelings are going to arise as we cope with this reality. Throwing stones at one another, publicly shaming each other, and acting as though one’s own interpretation is superior and healthier than someone else’s is just one more layer of cruelty. When children (and adults!) are in their fearful reptilian brains, they are not capable of higher level thinking, absorbing nuance, and seeing things from all sides. Am I safe? Am I safe? This is the only concern.
I am so grateful that on that difficult day, I was surrounded by women who held space for that dark, ugly fear. Women who shared my grief and gave voice to it. We were a safe place for each other that day– we held the complex layers without judgment, and we allowed the same for our children.
Pretty soon the sheriff vehicles will disappear from the school drop off and pick up. We will go back to normal. We will forget this for a time. And then there will be another time. I know that it’s inevitable. But I deeply wish that as we all process these events in our own imperfect ways, that we could offer more grace and compassion to one another despite our differences.