When Going to School Causes Trauma: Guns, Drills, and Kids

The question was asked quietly from the back seat, “Mama, will a bad guy ever shoot me?”  It was from my 5 year old on the way home from school last week.  He is not a quiet child, so this question felt different.  His brother was sitting next to him and drives home from school are generally about Minecraft, Star Wars, or bickering about who gets to hold what toy.

I was taken aback, I wanted to provide comfort and reassurance, I was curious about what prompted such a question, but mostly, I was profoundly and viscerally struck by the reality that I could not, in good conscience, state factually that, no, a bad guy with a gun will never shoot you, honey.

I know what my son needed in that moment was reassurance, so reassurance was what I offered.  I kept the gut punch of reality to my adult self.  “Mama and Daddy work really hard to keep you safe, honey, away from bad guys with guns.  We live in a safe home in a safe neighborhood and don’t come in contact with guns.”

All of that is true, but the other truth is that an American’s chance of being shot and killed with a gun by assault are 1/315.  We know this through data collection and research, but that research is hard to come by.

In 1996, the Dickey Amendment, an NRA backed piece of legislation, forbade the Centers for Disease Control from funding or performing any research about gun violence in America.  That changed in March 2018, but the government still has not funded any major studies.

Outside resources and entities like Everytown for Gun Safety have tried to make a dent into the issue.  They report that in 2018, almost 2,900 American children and teens will killed by gun violence.  Another 15,600 were shot and injured by guns.  And a whopping three million kids witnessed an incident of gun violence.  Just in 2018.

Those numbers are staggering to me.  And when I see them and try to digest them, it starts to make sense why my pre-k 5 year old asked the question he asked.  That ish trickles down.

About an hour or so after we got home, I checked my email and saw in a chatty note from his school that the kids had been involved in a “safe room drill” earlier in the day.  In between news of summer camp schedules, spring break dates, and info about Mr. Smarty Pants performing his Big Balloon Show next week, was a brief description of approximately fifty 3-6 year olds being guided into a “safe area of the school, away from windows and view.”

And there it is.  Dots connected.

With the rise of mass and school shootings in America, educators and administrators across the country are scrambling to prepare their teachers and students should the worst happen — a bad guy with a gun, as my child calls it, pulling the trigger.

Photo taken by Sheila Quirke in Chicago, Illinois in February 2018, days after the Parkland shooting.

Connecting more dots, after I got my sons settled down with an after school snack, I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw this Tweet, detailing what teens are now experiencing as just part of day-to-day life in this new America:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I’m not gonna lie, it was all a bit much for me last Friday afternoon.  Click through the link to see an anonymous kid describe what happens these days at the local laser tag place, why kids no longer eat potato chips a certain way, and the new use school districts have found for staplers.

What that child who wrote about being a teen in an American high school today  described is trauma.  That child is traumatized.  We are raising a generation of children who experience trauma merely by going to school.  That shame is ours to own.

And it isn’t only students.  Last month it was reported that teachers in a Monticello, Indiana elementary school were traumatized and physically hurt after being fired on with plastic pellets by local sheriffs during an active shooter drill.  You can see that story here.  Yesterday, a friend posted that a local suburb in Chicago would be conducting an active shooter drill for first responders that would include a military grade tank.  The community of Plainfield was notified ahead of time.  “Do not be alarmed,” they were told.  You can see that story here.

Well I am alarmed.  I am furious and I am alarmed.

When did we decide that it was more important to be prepared for school shootings than it was to prevent them?  When did we decide that SWAT drills with military tanks rolling down our suburban streets were okay?  When did we decide that it was normal for kindergarteners (like my son) to walk through a metal detector security gate  every day and that was nothing to be concerned about?  When did we decide that bullet proof backpacks were something worth investing in?

None of this is normal, but it has become normalized.  We are numb to it now, this new America of mass shootings.  Bit by bit, the news of them hits us less hard.  The next one, and there will be a next one, will be just another in a long and growing list.

I cannot assure my son that a bad guy with a gun will never shoot him, but I can guarantee, I feel it in my mother bones, that the way to help these kids is not to traumatize them with preparedness drills.  The help our children need is a government and culture that stands up and says enough.  Enough.

Find the Good Where You Can, Even a Grocery Store Parking Lot

Asthma has really put a crimp in my schedule this week.  My little one’s minor cough morphed into an asthma event on Sunday and five days (and counting) of missed school.  He vacillates between being a sad little muffin and a jumping bunny on steroids, because, well, he is on steroids.

My capacity to leave the house has been quite limited.  Doctor visits, school obligations, and the grocery story have pretty much been my only “Get Out of Jail Free” cards since Monday morning.  Life becomes a bit simpler when you don’t really leave the house much.

I learned how to bake sourdough bread (and, lordy, am I going to write the hell out of the metaphors of learning how to bake bread) and did a lot of laundry (lather, rinse, make bed, vomit, lather, rinse, repeat).  My little one has been sleeping with me all week, the husband banished to the guest room, so I have been settling in by 8 or earlier every night.  Everything has slowed down.

There is a liberation to that, the slowing down.  Sometimes I feel like life is so busy and just a series of jumping from fire to fire, water buckets sloshing all the way.  Other times I feel like a pinball in a machine, not in any kind of control over my trajectory, just bouncing off of the hard metal objects around me.  DING!  DING!  DING!

It’s exhausting.

But still, despite the benefits of slowing down, like, say, warm sourdough smeared with butter, I have occasionally felt a wee bit, well, cooped up.  An energetic five year old can be a lot for this old broad to manage, but an energetic five year old on steroids who vomits when he can’t stop coughing is next level.

Twice I got out to the grocery store, which is not a lot for me, as I tend to shop for what we eat in the next day or two.  I go to the store while the kids are at school because dragging kids through mundane errands tends to cue their outrage.  It’s easier and more pleasant that way.  But there was no dragging a coughing, vomiting boy into a grocery store.  Nope.  So, there was not a lot of grocery store happening.

But on Tuesday morning at sunrise and Thursday evening at sunset, both times my husband was at home to take over kid duty, I ran out to the market to pick up a few groceries and some sanity.  And in those off hours, in those moments of the sun rising and setting, I looked up and saw two beautiful cloud filled skies.  And both times I was struck enough to pull out my camera phone and try to capture the beauty above me.

I don’t know if I was successful, as it’s hard to capture the beauty of a gorgeous skyscape on a camera phone, but I captured it well enough that as I was driving home yesterday, with the sky already changed and growing darker, I remembered the sunrise a couple of days earlier in a different grocery story parking lot I had also tried to capture.

Sunrise at the Mariano’s, 3.5.19
Sunset at the Jewel, 3.7.19

Seeing those two parking lot horizons reminded me of those days during my daughter’s cancer treatment when a solitary trip to the  store felt like winning the lottery.  The mundane is not a given.  The ordinary is extraordinary when you are living through sorrow and fear.

Asthma is not like cancer.  Thank goodness.  My son’s illness, while tense and scary at times, is pretty well managed through medicine and care that we have access to when needed.  Those are very good things and I feel lucky for them.

There was enough of a familiarity last night, the sunset behind me, the sense of liberation around me, that I remembered what cancer has taught me  — nothing is promised, nothing is forever, nothing is certain.  Grab what is good when you can.  Notice those sunsets and sunrises.  Look up.  Eat the bread, with the butter.  Take the picture.  Try to capture what you can.  Breathe it in, breathe it all in.

 

This Polar Vortex Has Me All Up In My Feelings, and What a Privilege That Is

If you’re lucky, the world stops in the middle of a polar vortex.  If you’re unlucky, nothing stops and there you are, working, making, doing, healing, delivering, surviving.   If you’re really unlucky, you are without a home, without proper shelter or food or gear or transportation.

I’m one of the lucky ones this go around with Mother Nature.  Our cars are gassed up, our fridge is fully stocked, the kids are in the background groaning about the iMovie app they’re trying to work on collaboratively.   Coen Brothers 2.0.  It turns out that 5 and 10 year old boys have very different artistic visions that result in noisy conflict.  Huh.

For many of us caught in this polar vortex, it is one of those precious moments that stretch into hours, sometimes days, when the world stops.  Attractions are closed.  Neighbors take the time to talk to one another as they stand in line in the grocery store or shovel out their cars on city streets.  There is a common enemy, shared experience, no blue or red, no north or south, less apparent difference.  It is us, together, against the cold, the chill, the snow.  We’re Chicagoans, strong stock, hearty, we got this.

Lake Michigan, 1.29.19. Photo courtesy of Robert McNees (@mcnees).

This weather brings out the sentimental, melancholy Irish in me.  The world is still around me, time feels suspended.  Is it Wednesday?  Saturday?  The outside falls away and the bright sun, thank goodness for the bright sun, shines on the thoughts and memories of other times the world stood still.

I made a pot of spaghetti sauce last night and I marveled that it felt like a hug from my Mom who died fourteen years ago, cliched as that may be.  The wine and the sugar in the sauce, the smell, the comfort of her embrace.  She kept me company in my kitchen last night, shared dinner with the grandsons she never met.  It was lovely.

And I can conjure my Dad in his bright red parka, bought for a steal at the Bargain Nook in Darlington, Wisconsin.  “It’s like wearing a grizzly bear,” he would say, the proudest of proud men, confident in his strength, unfazed by notions as man made as “wind chill.”  There was another day like this in Chicago, before we called it a polar vortex, when Christmas was cancelled in 1983.  I remember layer after layer after layer that he put on before going outside to start the car.  For those moments he was my very own Pa Ingalls.

But most of all, when the world stills like this, I think of Donna.  For a moment, when my daughter died, the world stopped with us, her Mom and Dad.  For a moment,  the world around us hung suspended with us in grief and disbelief and sorrow.  It is the stillness that recalls that core of grief, that moment of departure, that time my heart broke and before it started to repair itself.

Now in the stillness, Donna feels closer.

Yesterday, Block Club Chicago posted a story about a Spanish artist, Eduardo Vea Keating, transplanted to Chicago.  He makes murals out of snow.  They are ephemeral and simple and melt quickly.  I’ve been thinking about his words a lot since yesterday, in the stillness, “That’s usually how life is.  It’s full of moments.  Some are better and some are worse, but life goes on.  [The art] will melt.  Everything will pass.  Just enjoy what you have around you and try to stay positive.”

I can do that, I can find the beauty in the stillness.  Not all of us can.  Chances are, if you are reading these words, you, too, have found some stillness.  Take a moment, look around you, at the steaming Lake, at the thermostat that reads a number starting in a 6 or 7, at the gas tank on “F,” at the smiling/shouting kids wearing pajamas past noon, at the spoon covered in batter waiting to be washed.

There is a beauty and a comfort in the stillness and the cold, if you are lucky.  Can you see it?