As we waited for the school bus on a recent morning, my 9-year-old son asked me what he should do if a shooter walks into his elementary school and starts killing people.
It was not a question I was expecting. Usually, we talk about things like what he has for snack or whether Darth Vader or Yoda is smarter. So, I wasn’t ready to answer.
I asked him what he thought he was supposed to do. He said he should, “listen to the teacher.”
I told him that was a good idea. He has a beautiful, smart and caring teacher. She’d know best. He seemed satisfied. But, I wasn’t. My heart was racing because my son, my sweet, compassionate and concerned son, was scared of going to school. He didn’t feel safe.
And, I as his mother, the trusty solver of his problems, the bandager of all of his boo-boos (physical, mental, emotional) couldn’t guarantee that everything would be OK.
I thought the worst had passed. It hadn’t. He had a second question.
“So, what happens if I’m in the hallway when the shooter comes?”
He meant, what if there was no teacher there to tell him what to do.
I told him to think about where he could go to be safe. Run there. And stay put until he saw someone he trusts.
He nodded grimly. I think he believed he might not see me at the end of the school day. That this conversation might be our very last.
He said he was cold and leaned on me. That’s pretty rare. At the bus stop he tends to stand apart from me; just in case the bus comes around the corner and the other kids see us having a mom-son moment. I get that. But, he was all about the hugs.
He needed courage. I told him that school shootings are rare, so the chance of one happening in his school is pretty slim. But, I admitted, school shootings do happen.
He nodded. Then, he asked the saddest question of all.
“Why would someone want to kill me?”
I told him that there are sick people in the world, and that trying to understand a person who would harm a stranger is impossible. I told him that people who do these sorts of things aren’t healthy. And that most people would help a stranger and never hurt one.
I told him what Mr. Rogers said, so smartly—whenever there’s a terrible thing, look for the helpers. Because, there are always helpers.
Right? Most people are good. They see suffering and they want to stop it. We cook for the hungry, run holiday gift drives for those down on their luck and help our neighbors in need. We are a caring, loving species.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people on Wednesday was reportedly the 18th school shooting in the U.S. since New Year’s Day. It’s hard to believe. Of course, I didn’t tell my son how many there have been. How does a mother explain that the all-knowing adults around him haven’t been able to fix this? That shootings are a fact of life because nothing has happened to make them stop.
As parents we try to make the world feel secure for our kids. We know grownup life is turbulent and unpredictable and scary. We want our kids to be calm and at peace so they can focus on the difficult task of growing up. But, reality intrudes on us all.
I wish we had the collective will to alter this reality.
The bus came and my little guy squeezed me for all he was worth.
“Bye, mom,” he said.
“I love you,” I said. “See you at the end of the day.”
He got on the bus and I watched him walk to a seat and sit down. He immediately looked out the window at me. He usually ignores me completely and plays with his friends.
The bus door closed and the bus drove away.
My guy’s face didn’t move. It was pressed against the glass and he kept staring at me. I waved. He continued to stare at me until his bus turned the corner and disappeared.