Back to School Shouldn’t be Scary

I hate the end of summer. It actually caused me physical pain to cross off the last week of August on my calendar. Summer is the best time of year. Less screen time, more outside time. It’s a healthier lifestyle. We’re more active, riding bikes, hiking, swimming. Wandering in the woods to find a new swimming hole along the river. It’s so good for the body and soul.

But this year I loved summer for another reason. My kids were home with me and they were safe. Back to school has a whole new layer of pain for me now. It’s not just worrying about letting my little ones go to meet new challenges and face all the ups and downs of their school day. It’s not just the end of beautiful summer or seeing how much they really grew because their pants are two inches too short. This year, I am afraid.

Newtown changed the world for mothers of school children. We used to have to be worried about pressure to perform on tests, bullies, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the more recent disaster of social media. Now there is a whole new worry. I’m not calling the principal to discuss homework policies. I’m calling to tell her she needs to have an immediate evacuation plan instead of lockdown. It feels dire, and wrong, and tragically necessary.

It took less than one week of school this year for a gunman to enter a school in Georgia, confirming the lurking fears I’ve tried to put aside. It came across my news feed as soon as I started my computer that morning. My son had just gotten up and performed his usual morning ritual of coming to sit in my lap for a moment (the best way to start the day). I held him and the tears rolled down my cheeks as I tried to hide them from him.

The Facebook post from Sandy Hook Promise responding to that event says it far better than I could: “No child should have reason to be afraid to go to school and no parent should be afraid that the child they send to school in the morning won’t be coming home in the afternoon. Moments like this demand that we all work together to find common sense solutions we can support individually, and as a nation, to prevent tragedy and save lives.”

I never suspected that the worst instance in our lifetime of the slaughtering of kindergarten children would galvanize a pro-gun movement so strongly. I’ve been saddened by the response. Rather than contrition, gun owners are more defiant than ever. I see angry people rallying for their rights with an unprecedented force of will, joining powerful groups that hold politicians hostage to their demands in record numbers. People are carrying loaded weapons into coffee shops where families congregate. This is not right.

I tried to put it all aside. Put up that wall of denial, the same one that says my kid won’t be snatched off the street or attacked in a public bathroom. We can’t spend our lives hiding, I’ve never wanted my children to live that way. We embrace life. And what are we going to do, not go to school? I didn’t want my fear to scare my kids. So I just kept quiet.

Then as we were shopping for school supplies, in the middle of the pencil aisle at Staples, tired and frustrated and searching for the brand that was on sale, my son told me there was another reason he didn’t want to go to school. In a voice I could barely hear over the din of the store, he said, “I’m afraid of school shootings.”

Part of me knew it was there, of course it was. How could it not be on his mind, when it colored so much of last year? But even knowing that in advance, I couldn’t find the words to calm him. Parents usually have these speeches in their pocket, waiting for the right time to bust them out. But I had nothing.

All I could come up with was a half-assed, “We have to believe that’s not going to happen.” And that’s the best I can do for my kid? Just blind hope? Pray for the best? We’re supposed to be able to make them feel safe. It was a low moment.

I can teach my kids how to deal with bullies. I can call teachers and talk about troubles and work with them to support my kids. But this fear, this threat, is something we all feel powerless against.

And yet, we are not powerless. We can push our legislators to enact laws like those in California, the only state that has a department that exists solely to track down people who should not have guns and take those guns away

We can donate to groups like Sandy Hook Promise. We can join Moms Demand Action. My mother’s fight was against drunk driving. I guess this will be mine. This is the work I can do.

Parents have rights too, and those are to send their child to school without having to worry about whether that child, the most precious thing they’ve ever known in their whole life, will come home safely at the end of the day. Children have a right to go to school and consider it a safe place. Teachers have a right to work in a safe environment. These rights are the foundation of our society and they must be defended.

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