I’m standing in the back of my kindergartener’s classroom — stapling worksheets, sipping coffee and listening while the teacher tells her 5- and 6-year-old students what to do "if someone bad gets into the school." I hear muffled voices and whispers; there are questions all around.
A tiny girl with pink-ribboned pigtails: "Why would someone want to hurt us?"
A red-headed boy: "Is he a robber? Or more like a zombie?"
A kiddo pushes his chest out to show his Spiderman t-shirt: "I'll do my karate moves on him"
They’re excited, I realize, as I stand at the back of the class. They think this is a game.
The teacher continues, "Stay quiet. Fight back. Throw things. And if you’re outside, run in a zigzag. If you live close to school, run home."
"We will come find you,” she says.
I watch as the kids’ hands shoot up in innocent excitement — we’re talking fighting bad guys and getting the green light to run home from school, after all.
I feel sick to my stomach.
The monster we all live with
Something has shifted in the realm of elementary classrooms and childhood innocence. The inconceivable and very real fear of a school shooting has slithered its way past the halls of Columbine, through an elementary school in Newtown, a theater in Colorado and too many others, touching our neighborhoods, our sense of safety and our sanity with its filthy claws.
Our school morning dance of locating missing socks and packing lunches now includes a heavy, mottled cloud of dark fear that shows up as I plant a goodbye kiss on my son’s head and send him off to school. That monster sticks around, lurking behind piles of laundry and to-do lists, until he’s safely back home. And then it reappears the next morning. And the next.
What are we to do with the fear, the hopelessness, the anger, the outrage?
I’ve learned that I need to create an escape route from my own head or else risk being paralyzed by fear. I need something to do. An action item. Thankfully, when I started researching and asking questions and connecting with others, I found that there are things I can — and must — do.
What to do
First, I joined a mom-led, anti-gun violence Facebook group in my school district that works toward stricter gun laws.
I’ve donated to organizations and shared petitions. I’ve attended PTA meetings where I listened to what our school is doing for safety and voiced my own anxieties, thoughts and opinions. I’ve written emails to the superintendent and political leaders.
I’ve attended prayer groups led by moms who specifically focus on praying for schools, teachers and students in local neighborhoods. I pray for my kids’ protection. Every. Single. Day.
That act of physically doing something — attending a meeting, writing a letter, hosting a prayer group — helps chip away at the fear that threatens to take root in my heart. Because even something small can add to the slowly-growing avalanche of change. And it has made a surprisingly big change in my own feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
It’s been almost three years since that day I was volunteering in my son's kindergarten class. My son will be starting third grade soon. In each grade, "the talk" about school shootings becomes a little less superhero-ish and a little more real.
As fall draws near, I anticipate that anxiety monster appearing once again. Hopefully, it’ll be somewhat smaller but I know it’ll never be gone. Then, I remind myself of what I can do to lessen the fear, to keep my mind in the present.
Take action. Write a to-do list — however short, however simple — just write it. And then do one thing on it. That's how I face this monster.
Editor's note: The author of this story, a Seattle-area mom, preferred to remain anonymous.