Another school shooting happened today outside Portland, Oregon. That makes—if the admittedly skewed gun control meme I saw on Facebook is accurate—74 school shootings since Sandy Hook. Which is a big number, especially since Sandy Hook seems so recent. I don’t think there’s anything a lucky person like me—one who’s never been personally affected by gun violence, whose perfectly healthy child is in his bed singing his ABCs as she writes—can say about tragedies like Sandy Hook. I will say that I sat alone in my classroom and wept that day as I read the headlines, and that I was profoundly shaken for days afterward. Perhaps because I’m a teacher, school shootings have always unsettled me—but sadly, they’re no longer shocking. The Columbine massacre occurred during my first year of teaching; my whole career has been studded with them.
There are a lot of reasons why the Sandy Hook incident shook me the worst, but I’m fairly sure the biggest reason was that I’d just become a parent. My son was one year and nine days old when that shooter took the lives of those first graders. Losing my child was, and still is, unimaginable. There’s first fear, and then a sense of impotence, and then a gnawing, directionless anger when I think that my child might die just from going to school. I know the statistics; it’s unlikely that my child would die in a school shooting. But statistics hold little sway here. This is a whole other realm, where I can’t just say, “It isn’t happening to me; it probably won’t happen to me.” This is a heaviness, a sickness, a disease in the true sense of the word. This is I don’t want to live in a world where this happens.
Today there was an empty seat in my third period class. The girl who usually sits there, one of my best students, is hospitalized and won’t be returning to school for these last two weeks. No one will tell us what happened, so we teachers are speculating: anxiety? depression? eating disorder? suicide attempt? They all seem unlikely possibilities. She’s such a good kid. The guidance counselor says only, “Scary things can happen to good kids.” There’s a knot in my stomach as I tick back over the last few weeks and ask myself if there’s something about her demeanor I should have noticed.
Tonight it’s hard to watch my two-year-old playing with his action figures and feel any kind of peace. As a people, we aren’t OK. Being a parent means a constant awareness of this dis-ease. It means knowing that no matter how much we love our children and how vigilant we are about keeping them safe, they are vulnerable. They can get hurt; they can be taken away from us.
Before my son, I honestly didn’t understand how bad the loss of a child would be. I imagined it would be horrible, but not that it could destroy a person, crack someone clear through. Now that I’m a parent, I often catch myself thinking, Please, just not that. Anything, but not my child.
I’m thankful that Jack, who’s lifted up his shirt and is pulling at his belly button, is oblivious to this anxiety. “That’s your belly button,” I tell him. “That’s where you were connected to Mommy. How you breathed and got your nutrients.”
He looks up at me, his shirt still raised. “I want sugar.”
I make homemade whipping cream with Nutella for our strawberries and eat peppermint patties while I’m making it. Instead of drinking or smoking or screaming or crying. And I think, Please, just not my child. Bargaining with a god I don’t believe in.