I worry about a lot of things. I worry more as a mother. It makes you exist in the world differently. My heart breaks for the genocide in Myanmar, the never ending attacks in Syria, the famine in Yemen, the United State decision to separate children at the border. It aches for the word I brought children into. I donate every few months to groups doing the hard work. Not enough. Not as often I should. I’m working on it. I can’t do the hard work right now, so I try to support those who are.
The first mass shooting I remember hearing about was Columbine in 1999. We got concerned about high school boys who wore dark, long coasts. We felt unsure of the right thing to do. The line between keeping each other safe and individual liberty. You looked differently at this class of black fingernail painted, dark clad white adolescent males. It was interesting to learn how feelings, logic and empathy kind of intersected in those last few months of high school.
Now, almost twenty years later, my nine year old and five year old learn to hide under the teacher’s desk in case someone decides to try and kill them while they exercise their right to public education. An education provided by underpaid, undervalued, under supported teachers, custodians, paraprofessionals and administrators who are knee deep in the mental health crisis and ever moving benchmarks of what constitutes a proper education. So on top of dealing with curriculum, state standards, the social-emotional day-to-day of running a classroom of individuals– they now go to work unsure of if today is the day someone will be filled with hurt and anger enough to cause a mass casualty.
When Columbine happened, my 18 year old self didn’t quite picture this as our solution or current state of affairs. I thought we’d figure out how to stop whatever makes a person hard and cruel. That the adults would figure out how to support those who are disenfranchised for being less than mainstream. The fact it would keep perpetuating never occurred to me. Yet, we are still here. Hurting each other. More brazen attacks. More grief shared. More damage. More places to add to the list of potential death grounds.
This week alone two lost their life in grocery store because they were Black. Church doors of the original target were locked. Why do we care so much what color someone’s skin is? Why do we feel differently about physical features? Bombs were sent across the country to maim and kill those with certain political affiliations. Chicago had two mass shootings that were gang related. One was at a funeral. An attack at a Temple on the Jewish sabbath. One report said they were naming babies. There was probably more bad things. This was all I heard about this week.
Now, there is nothing that is safe. Honestly. That invisible boundary where society said “Not Here,” has dissolved. There is no out-of-bounds. Instead these places are now targets. Where can we congregate safely? No church or temple. No school. No concert. No movie theater. No grocery store. No mall. No funeral. And not even behind a badge. Enough of us have decided that there are no boundaries to how we interact with each other. Everything is at stake all the time.
If you have a dark skin tone, love the same gender, worship a particular religion, come from a different country you are suspect. If you are different than what you see in the mirror– you bring a tingle of fear and uncertainty into my being. It might have always been this way, but it feels like that expectation to behave decently get thinner and thinner. Our will to be accountable for our behaviors is less. At some point we settled for this garbage.
Mental health is a crisis. Guns are out of balance somehow. Some of us have loss of respect for the ease of which a bullet can succinctly rip through one’s body. Appreciation of human life seems not enough on its own to stop one from taking another’s. The news blares the tragedies on and on never ending until we kind of grow apathetic to it. At least it wasn’t here today. I’m still okay. I can’t do anything to stop this. Everything is big and sensational and senseless and we are inundated with images, words, and heartbreak again and again.
Right now, we’re in the middle of 4th Grade. School is kind of a mystery as a parent. They disappear for six hours and I hear crumbs about there day. I ask about it over the course of each week “What did you read today? Who did you sit at lunch with? Who did you play with at recess? What was the worst part of your day? What was your favorite thing today?” Some days are one word answers. Others we have a conversation. Yet, mostly, the hours in school belong to my daughter and her life story alone.
At the start of the year, I told my nine year old that everyone is gong to start noticing what makes each other different. That she had to remember that all those things that make her classmates not alike were exactly what makes them special. Also, that when her classmates get focused on what make someone different, to turn the conversation to what they have in common. I prepared.
However, I wasn’t ready when it came. After mostly small statements about funny songs she makes up with her friends and butt crack jokes told in quiet voices so the aides can’t here, my nine year old came home this month talking about a classmate who cried at recess. Her lunch was different. Some of the girls told this child that if she ate her lunch from home they couldn’t be friends anymore. I don’t know which kids– my girl did not name names which I respect. I don’t really know if mine stayed out of it like she claims, because she has a harsh mouth that gives no fucks some days. I do know that she was one of the girls who sat at recess with her teary friend. And I know that at the end of her story, I asked: “Well, what did you tell your friend after all that?” She replied with a shrug: “I told her to just ignore them. “While not perfect, with nine years of life experience, it seemed like decent advice.
It’s been a few weeks and I still am sitting on this clue of her life. Here is the thing I can’t let go of: Am I staring at the beginning? Is this that crucial piece where a person has to decide what to do with their fear and their pain? Is this twenty minute lunchroom the place where these kids will foster our future. Will these kids apologize or antagonize next time? Will the girl with the ethnic lunch be brave enough to bring leftover chicken again? Will school feel less safe as she walks through the front doors each morning? Will it be chalked up to kids being kids? What is being learned at the moment crucial part of growing up?
Here is the hard question. The one that has me up past my bedtime. The one that hurts because it is the thing you aren’t suppose to ask: Are these the moments that the life stories of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began to twist? Where Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson intolerance festered? Where Gregory Bush’s act of violence at age 51 was born? Is this a dot in the puzzle of how James Isaac threw a rock that smashed names of Holocaust victims? Or one that somehow fueled Robert Bowers to pick up a gun and open fire this weekend? Who were they at age nine? Is this where the opportunity to change things, our course of humanity, lies?
And so, once again, I’m fumbling badly through tough conversations. Because the thought I’m having is that I can’t keep these facts from my children. The already in the hard parts of life. That, even though I love the kids in her class, that teasing someone over their lunch is bullying. That’s the thing adults keep talking about, well, that lunch it actually happened. That I love that she sat with her classmate who was hurt and listened. That next time, even though she might get teased to, she should tell those kids to lay off about what someone brings for lunch. Then change the conversation to something better to disagree about like the best way to make slime.
What I’m working on weeks later is trying to talk about is how lunch from home is deeply personal. How different cultures eat different smelling and flavored food. That demanding a classmate be less ethnic through lunch is racist in a way. That her friend should be able to eat what she likes and not worry about what will happen at lunch. That everyone should be safe to be themselves at her lunch table. That what makes us different is what is the best part of being your own self. That being friends only works when you can be yourself. That tolerance is part of being friends. It is a big, messy conversation. I don’t even know if I’m getting it right. I’m almost forty and still navigating it with my adult peers.
Yet here is the fact that wants me to keep trying: I want my kids to grow up and know more peace than pain. This is a map of all the mass shootings in 2018 the United States:
These conversations are works in progress. Maybe having them will be the thing that leads to less red on the map these kids will look at in thirty years. I don’t really know, but I’m so tired of checking exits and wondering if taking my kid to a concert will be a death sentence. I want better. Maybe having hard conversations and learning to talk to each other will be the thing that makes a difference. Something has to.