A few weeks ago, I received an email from my daughter’s school that there had been an unplanned lockdown drill that day. The message stated that there had been a wiring malfunction that had been taken care of, and that a regularly scheduled lockdown drill would take place next month. I didn’t really think much of it, to be honest. I was pleased to know that the school was vigilant about parent communication, and went on with my day.
Hours later, at the bus stop, my daughter was buzzing about her day. And that’s when the full picture came into view. Nobody—not even the teachers—knew what was happening when the alarm sounded. Apparently whenever there is a drill, this message plays over the intercom: “Lockdown: This is a drill.” According to my daughter, that day the message said, “Lockdown. Doors locked, out of sight,” but did not contain the words “this is a drill.” And it was not treated or experienced as such.
Children were crying, some sobbing that they didn’t want to die. My daughter, pressed against a child next to her in the closet, said she could feel his legs shaking. Her teacher pushed several desks against the door before joining the kids. This is not what a lockdown drill normally feels like. Can you imagine being a teacher that day, having to accept the possibility that there may be a threat in the building? Whether it was an angry non-custodial parent or an armed stranger, you had to protect a roomful of children from an unknown danger. And you had to prepare for the worst.
My daughter, as you may recall, is extremely sensitive and often anxious. She told me that she was scared and upset, but that she didn’t cry. I tried to piece it together later, how it was even possible that this child of mine who has entered full-on fight-or-flight mode during a thunderstorm, who has run back inside the school building when she was frightened of the wind, kept it together.
It’s not as though she was unaffected; she retold the story nearly a dozen times in the days that followed. The processing was extremely important to her, and empowering in some ways, I suppose. I think the reason she wasn’t overly traumatized during the incident was that, miraculously, violence and “bad guys” aren’t really on her radar. Her particular anxiety trigger happens to be natural disasters, at least for the moment. She may have been completely tuned out to the possibility that there was an intruder in the school who wanted to harm someone; but for other children, and most definitely for the teachers, I suspect that fear was foremost in their minds.
I felt relief that perhaps we’ve managed to shelter her from some of the evil and terror in the world. We never watch the news around her (or, really, at all), and we do not discuss terrorism, abduction, or violence around her. As a Highly Sensitive Person myself, I try to avoid exposure to those types of stories altogether. Two years ago, nearly to the day, a local girl was abducted and murdered, and our daughter was in first grade at the time. We had no choice but to discuss it with her—there was simply no avoiding it. She was told horrifying details at the lunch table by a fellow six-year-old; I was completely unprepared for the conversation we had to have later. She asked questions, and I answered them as honestly as I could. Two months later, Sandy Hook happened. How could I tell her that a classroom full of children exactly her age had been killed? But I did. Somehow, we all did.
For whatever reason, first grade was a low-anxiety year for my daughter. Perhaps those events are no longer on her radar. But of course, they are on mine, on most parents’. And yet we are somehow able to go on. We are somehow able to send our children to school every day, confident that we will greet them again at the end of the day, that they will have been kept safe. We count on it. I drop my daughter off at school or at the bus stop, and we make our plans for afternoon pickup. Is she taking the bus home? Will I meet her at school where the sidewalk turns to grass, where we will cross the street together to pick up her sister at preschool? Her sister, who has also spent a happy day safe amongst her teachers and friends.
We have talked about safety, about strangers and non-strangers, and code words. And then we stop. We move on with our lives. We take it for granted—how could we not? To live with that daily anxiety and hyper-vigilance would be crippling.
Nothing bad happened that day. But it makes me wonder if it is nothing more than a cosmic hiccup when tragedies are avoided. What separates the days when the nebulous threat suddenly manifests from the days when life goes on as usual? Is it excellent safety protocols or vigilant parents or a healthy community that keeps my daughter’s elementary school safe—or is it just luck?
And so I say goodbye to my daughters in the morning before I drive to work. I give my third grader a quick hug and tell her, with all the blind trust and faith in the world, “I’ll see you where the sidewalk ends.”