The tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, hit me hard.
Like most parents, every school shooting hits me hard, but I grew up in South Florida and graduated from high school just 20 minutes from Parkland. It makes me emotional to think about my own high school and what such an experience would have been like for myself or even for my husband, a middle school teacher. Harder still is thinking about our own kids, who are years away from high school but already impacted by these all-too-frequent tragedies.
Reading the news on my phone (because I don't dare on the TV news when my kids are around) made me think of a conversation I overheard between my sons last fall. Usually they talk about "Minecraft," their Lego creations and bodily functions, but my 6-year-old’s question stopped me in my tracks that day.
“Did anyone in your class cry during the lockdown drill?”
My 8-year-old grunted (he’s well on his way to being a teenager already), so I filled in the silence, wondering what was in my younger son’s head.
“What’s a lockdown drill?” I asked, wanting to know how much they know and understand. “Isn’t that like a fire drill?” I was trying for a light tone and failing hard.
“No,” my 8-year-old chimed in for his brother, eager to correct Mom. “It’s where we have to be very, very quiet—“
“And stay away from the windows,” his little brother added.
“Yes,” my second-grader said, becoming as animated as when he plays one of his video games. “Stay away from the windows and do exactly what the teacher says.”
“Be quiet,” my 6-year-old said. “Very quiet.”
I couldn’t breathe, even though I know they’ve been doing lockdown drills since they started school. But having my children—my babies—telling me the procedures of a lockdown drill was just too much. I didn’t want to know, but I had to ask to find out how much they knew.
“Why?” I said, twice, because my voice wouldn’t quite work. “Why do you have to be quiet?”
They talked over each other, but their answers were the same, “In case there is a bear outside.”
A bear. A bear. When they hunker down in their classroom, obediently silent and still, they think they’re practicing for a bear breaking into their school.
“A bear?” I said, caught between a laugh and a sob. “Really?”
They looked at each other for confirmation, nodding. “Yes! My kindergarten teacher last year said she was visiting her grandparents once and a bear got in their garage,” the 6-year-old told me. “And she was so scared, but they were really quiet and the bear went away.”
I wanted to tell my children the truth, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I don't know how. I still don't.
I wondered if that was a true story. Had there really been a bear in his teacher’s garage? Or was his teacher trying to reinforce the very real dangers that make a lockdown drill necessary by inventing a story that would convince a room full of squirmy kindergarteners to stay still and quiet?
They were so proud to tell me how much they know about bears getting into schools. “Bears can break glass,” my 8-year-old said. “That’s why you have to stay away from the windows.”
“And they can run fast, so you have to stay in a locked room because you can’t outrun them,” my 6-year-old added.
There are no bears in our suburban neighborhood. There will be no bear at the window, breaking into their elementary school and running wild. I understand why the teachers tell them this. I understand why it’s necessary to blur the threat for these children who will likely never see a bear outside of a zoo. I understand. And yet I don’t.
I wanted to tell my children the truth, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I don’t know how. I still don't.
“Bears, huh?” I said, shaken. “Who knew?”
“Oh, Mama,” my 6-year-old said, leaning over the couch to hug me tight before I went into the kitchen. “You don’t know everything.”
He’s right—I don’t know everything. Sometimes I don’t even know how to breathe when I let them out of my sight in this world. A world where they honestly believe, wide-eyed and innocent, that grown-ups always tell the truth and that it’s possible for a bear to invade their elementary school.
It was hard to drop them off at school this morning. It's hard every day, but it was harder than ever today.
When will my children realize it isn’t a bear they’ve been preparing for? When will they know they’ve been lied to by the adults they trust?
Somehow, I swallow my fears and let them go. I drive them to school and drop them off at the curb or, if they'll let me, walk them to the front door each day. I like to watch as they go into their lovely school, until they walk around the corner and are out of my sight. Safe—I hope—in their classrooms.
Parents aren’t allowed in the school without permission, though I have sometimes pushed the rule just to keep my kids in sight for a moment longer. I’m waved away by the administrators for being the helicopter mom I have become.
Would they wave a bear away, I wonder? Would a bear stop, realize he isn’t supposed to go past the front office, isn’t supposed to be in the school at all because he doesn’t have ID proving he should be there, and lumber out the way he came?
It’s a mental picture I can’t get out of my head: administrators shooing away a bear, easy as that. My children safe, never knowing there was ever a threat.
When will my children realize it isn’t a bear they’ve been preparing for? When will they know they’ve been lied to by the adults they trust? When will they ask me, “Why didn’t you tell us the truth?” And what will I say? How will I explain Columbine, Sandy Hook, Douglas? How many more school names will be added to the list by the time they know the truth?
They’re only in first and second grade now, so I’m hoping by the time they know the truth I will have an answer.