How Do I Explain Our Terrorized Country to a Child?
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"What did you do at school today, Seamus?" It’s a question I ask him everyday.
"Well," my proud preschooler begins, "we did not have a lockdown drill today." And that’s about as far as he gets in the art of storytelling. Sometimes I'll get something about "bim" (gym) or how "Bambi" (Jeremy) pinched him during free play. But the thing that preoccupies my precocious three year old every single day he goes to school is the lockdown drill he and his classmates had in their first month of school.
At a parent-teacher conference in November, my husband Patrick and I got a fuller picture of this episode from his teacher. When the lockdown began, she says, Seamus and his classmates were in the hall on their way to the library. Amid the clangs, they sought refuge in the gymnasium closet. Eighteen kids and two teachers sitting crisscross applesauce on its floor amid racks of balls and hula hoops. Seamus, she tells us, sat on her lap with his fingers in his mouth and cried the entire time.
"Does he talk about it at home?" she asks.
"It’s as though nothing else happens at school," my husband replies. "He talks about lockdown drills all the time."
She informs us that the drills happen about once a month, and that Seamus remains easily startled long after they’re over, running for shelter between an adult's legs whenever he hears loud noises in the classroom.
At that moment -- not exactly one of my proudest -- I burst into tears. I just couldn’t square my son’s loving exuberance and confidence in the people around him with the sheer, teeth-hurting terror of children being stalked by an armed killer through the halls of The Friendship School. How, after all, do you practice for the unthinkable? This is a subject that’s been on my mind since I was hardly older than he is now. I look over at him playing contently with his sisters, Madeline, almost two, and Rosena, almost nine, so proud to share his classroom with them.
"At home," I tell the teacher through my tears, "we chant 'Gun Control, Not Lockdown Drills!' whenever he talks about them." And then I add, "It makes me so angry that he and his friends have to go through this trauma and the big men get to keep their right to bear assault weapons. He should be scared of lockdown drills. They sound terrible. He shouldn’t have to practice surviving a mass killing episode at one of his favorite places in the whole wide world." I wipe my tears away, but they just keep coming.
Our kids ask us all sorts of questions. Why? Why? Why? They are tiny existentialists. Why is the sky blue? Why do people die? Why does grass grow? They regularly demand that we explain the world to them. Good luck!
His teacher is so earnest and so young and I feel so brittle and so extreme as I cry, folded into one of the small seats at a quarter-sized table in her cheerful classroom. "I am sorry," I finally say.
"No, no, its okay," she replies with all the kind politeness a teacher learns. "It is hard," she continues, "but this is real. We have to practice for this kind of thing."
Thinking the Unthinkable
I wonder, of course. I know that so much of this is based on fears -- not quite irrational but blown out of all proportion -- that have been woven into our American world. My husband reminds me of how his parents' generation had to practice surviving a nuclear attack by doing "duck and cover" drills under their desks. I was too young to duck and cover, but my parents were ardent anti-nuclear activists with no inhibitions about describing to a child just what such a war would mean so I learned to be terrified of nuclear war at a very young age.
I came to believe that the only thing keeping Soviet and American intercontinental ballistic missiles from decimating our cities was the activism, organizing, and witness of my parents and their small band of friends and fellow travelers. We would stand in front of the Pentagon -- this was in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s -- holding up signs with slogans like "You can't hide from a nuclear bomb" and the old symbol for a fallout shelter printed below it. I was taught that there could be no security, no safety in a world full of nuclear weapons, that the only way to be safe was to get rid of them.
Imagine how I feel all these years later in a world still chock-a-block full of such weapons. These days, I wonder why the fear of them has disappeared, while the weaponry remains. Is that better or worse for Seamus’s generation? And what about our present set of fears? What about our twenty-first-century whys?
Assuming there are more Adam Lanzas out there (and there obviously are), that more gun shops will sell ever more implements of rapid-fire death and destruction, and that more gun lobbyists and promoters will continue to cling to this "God-given, constitutionally enshrined right," my son does need to endure more lockdown drills.
The consensus of school security experts is certainly that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (only 80 miles from our house), would have been much worse if the students and teachers hadn't been practicing for exactly the nightmare scenario that struck on December 14, 2012.
But how can I explain any of this to my little boy when it makes no sense to me? When it makes no sense, period?
Why? Why? Why? As a kid, I got an earful every time I asked that question. My parents were comfortable exposing my brother, sister, and me to the horrors of our world. In first or second grade, my activist parents involved me in a UNICEF slide show about world hunger. We would go to churches and schools where I would recite the script, full of sad (and still, sadly, largely on the mark) statistics about how children throughout the world suffer from malnutrition. I could tell you why kids were hungry all over the world, since my mom had tacked on a conclusion to the slide show that lay the blame squarely on the U.S. military-industrial complex.
My parents did, however, try to protect me from what they found most fearsomely destructive in American life. We were not allowed to watch television, except for the evening news (somewhat less hysterical than today but no less bleak). Like any self-respecting American kid, I would always ask, "Why no TV?" and always get the same answer. “Because it teaches racism, sexism, and consumerism, because it fills your head with wants, because it gets in the way of your own imagination and creativity.”
So instead of Knight Rider or The Cosby Show, we watched black and white documentaries about Hiroshima and Nagasaki projected onto our living room wall. I couldn’t tell you about the latest plot twists on Full House, but I could tell you why nuclear weapons were wrong. Those grainy images of destroyed cities, burnt skin, and scarred faces were etched into my young brain by the age of five. My heroines were two young anti-nuclear activists. Sadako Sasaki was a Japanese girl who contracted leukemia after the atomic bombing. She folded hundreds of paper cranes as a prayer for healing and peace before dying at the age of 12. Samantha Smith, a young girl from Maine, wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov with a plea for peace. He, in turn, invited her to tour the Soviet Union where she connected deeply with young Russians. She died in a plane crash at the age of 13.
I wonder now about my childhood fears. They helped me support and believe in the anti-nuclear work of my parents. But nightmares, morbid fascinations with young martyrs, a fixation on the tick-tockings of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock -- these are not things that I want to pass on to the next generation. I guess I’m happy that they don’t know what nuclear weapons are (yet) and it’s one more thing I’m not looking forward to explaining to them.
The questions are already coming fast and furious these days and they are only going to multiply. We have to try -- I have to try -- to answer them as best we -- I -- can. It’s a precious facet of parenting, the opportunity to explain, educate about, and even expound upon the wonders and horrors of this world of ours, and it’s a heavy responsibility. Who wants to explain the hard stuff? But if we don’t, others surely will. In these early years, our kids turn to us first, but if we can’t or won’t answer their questions, how long will they keep asking them?
Why do we practice lockdown drills? Why do people kill kids? Why is there war? Why are all those weapons, the nuclear ones and the assault rifles alike, still here?
“Why Do the Police Kill People?”
At some preschools, it’s protocol to explain lockdown drills in terms of preparing in case a stinky skunk gets into the building. No one wants to get sprayed by a stinky skunk, do they?
Somehow, and I can’t tell you quite why, this seems to me almost worse than the truth. At Seamus' school, they don't talk explicitly about an armed intruder, but they do make a distinction between fire drills where they evacuate the building and "keeping safe from a threat" by "hiding" in it.
In the month since our parent-teacher meeting, Seamus has endured another lockdown drill and our country has continued to experience mass shooting events -- San Bernardino and Colorado Springs being just the most horrific. While at breakfast, Patrick and I read the news about healthcare offices and social service agencies turned into abattoirs, and yet we speak about such things only in code over granola and yogurt. It’s as if we have an unspoken agreement not to delve into this epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings with our kids.
Still, it’s strange not to talk about this one subject when we talk openly in front of our children about so much else: Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syrian refugee crisis, hunger and homelessness, GuantÃ¡namo and climate change. We usually welcome their whys and jump over each other to explain. Patrick is much better at talking in a way that they can all take in. I forget myself easily and slip into lecture mode (next slide, please).
After the police killings of Lashano Gilbert (tased to death in our town of New London, Connecticut), Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, we took the kids to candlelight vigils and demonstrations, doing our best to answer all Seamus's questions. "Why do the police kill people?" followed, of course, by "Are they going to kill me?" Then we somehow had to explain white privilege to a three year old and how the very things that we encouraged in him -- curiosity, openness, questioning authority -- were the things black parents were forced to discourage in their sons to keep them from getting killed by police.
And then, of course, came the next inevitable "Why?" (the same one I’m sure we’ll hear for years to come). And soon enough, we were trying desperately to untangle ourselves from the essentially unintelligible -- for such a young child certainly, but possibly the rest of us as well -- when it came to the legacy of slavery and racism and state violence in explaining to our little white boy why he doesn't need to cry every time he sees a police officer.
And then came the next "Why?" and who wouldn’t think sooner or later that the real answer to all of his whys (and our own) is simply, “Because it’s nuts! And we’re nuts!” I mean, really, where have we ended up when our answer to him is, in essence: "Don't worry, you're white!"
And then, of course, there’s the anxiety I have about how he’ll take in any of this and how he might talk about it in his racially diverse classroom -- the ridiculous game of "telephone" that he could play with all the new words and fragments of concepts rattling around in his brain.
My stepdaughter Rosena was a kindergartner when Adam Lanza killed those 20 little kids and six adults in their school just 80 miles west of us. Her school upped its security protocols, instituted regular drills, and provided parents and caregivers with resources on how to talk to their children about what happened. For five and six year olds, they advised not initiating such a conversation, nor allowing them to watch TV or listen to the radio news about the massacre. (Not exactly the easiest thing in our 24/7 media moment.) They also suggested responding to questions only in the most general terms. Basically, we were to sit tight and hope our kids didn’t get enough information to formulate a why.
Good luck on that these days, but sometimes I do wish the same for myself. No news, sit tight, and pretend nothing’s going on. After all, like so many of our present American fears, the fear that my kids are going to be gunned down in their classrooms is pretty irrational, right? Such school shootings don’t exactly happen often. Just because one did occur relatively near here three years ago doesn't mean pre-schools and elementary schools are systematically under attack, yes?
Unlike so many people on this planet, we don’t live in a war zone (if you put aside the global destructiveness of nuclear weapons). And given the yearly figures on death-by-vehicle in this country, my kids are unbelievably safer in school, any school, than they are in the back seat of my own car any day of the week, right?
Of course, there’s another problem lurking here and it’s mine. I’m not there. My three-year-old son is having scary experiences and I’m not there to walk him through them. And then there are those lockdown drills and what they are preparing him for. They couldn’t be creepier. They’re a reminder not just to our children but to their parents that, after a fashion, we may indeed be living in a kind of war zone. In 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 33,636 people were killed by guns in this country; in that same year, 127 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.
Some Questions Are Easier Than Others
Why is the sky blue? I have no idea, but it takes only a minute of Googling to find out that it has something to do with the way air molecules scatter more blue light than red light. Why do people die? Because no one can live forever, because they get sick and their bodies get old and their organs don't work any more and then we cry because we miss them and love them, but they live on, at least until our own memories go. Why does grass grow? Well, Google it yourself.
The problem, however, is with the most human of questions, the ones that defy Googling and good sense -- or any sense we may have of the goodness of humanity. And maybe, kids, we just have to wrestle together with those as best we can in this truly confusing world.
And keep one thing in mind: the very same litany of questions our kids never stop asking and that we struggle to answer, or wonder whether to answer at all, is always running like some strange song through our own adult heads as well, largely unanswered.
Why this particular world? Why this particular way? Why now?
Why? Why? Why?