A prayer for the children and parents who live in fear of school shootings
It was the last full week of school when I got this text from a fellow mom:
“So don’t freak out, but right now the school is in lockdown and they are not letting any parents in. They are also recommending not to park near the school yet or walk up to the doors. Apparently there is a suspect at large near the school so they are being cautious.”
My son is 6 years old. He is in kindergarten in our Texas town. I was driving to his school for a 3:35 p.m. pickup when my phone buzzed with this message. Shortly after, an email from the school district verified her warning. It read: “The elementary school is on a perimeter lockout because of police activity in the area. All students and staff are safe. During a lockout, no one is allowed to come to the campus. We will contact you with more information.”
Most of my brain knew the kids were probably O.K. But a small part of me feared the worst.
My heart was pounding as I drove near the school. Most of my brain knew the kids were probably O.K., that this lockout was imposed out of an abundance of caution. But a small part of me feared the worst, as any parent would fear the worst, as every parent says, “This would never happen here,” while simultaneously refreshing the news app on their phone. Another mom friend, a kind woman who happens to live a short walk from the school, invited me and some other moms to come and wait in her home until we heard more news.
The cool air conditioning hit us as we stepped inside her house and gained relief from the hot, muggy day. She pulled cans of sparkling water out of her refrigerator and set them on the table. We made small talk about the teachers and the new school principal. And then someone got a text that said police were searching the school for a murder suspect, and I thought I was going to vomit. The droning small talk continued, but panic settled in my belly and started to creep up into my throat. I work as a hospital chaplain, and part of me thought that perhaps I should offer a prayer. Perhaps that would calm me down? But I couldn’t muster up the offerto pray, much less any actual holy words. I was too afraid. So I sipped the cold sparkling water and stared at the clock on the wall instead. It was a beautiful Mondaine clock with a constantly spinning—not ticking—red second hand.
After about an hour, I received a message from one of my son’s teachers through an app the school uses for communication. “The kids are fine!” she wrote. “They are playing games and reading books.” The fear spell cracked, and my bile settled back into my stomach. The children were not hiding in a closet and counting on the body of their 26-year-old teacher to protect them from bullets. My son was not afraid. He was safe. He was happy.
As the panic lifted, I was able to slowly rejoin the conversation around the table. I recognized how safe I had really been the entire time. Surrounded by fellow mothers with food and drink and strong walls and cold air conditioning, I was never in danger. My son was never in danger. We are so blissfully lucky, aren’t we? Undeservedly so.
The police checked each car as we lurched forward in the pickup line for our boys. They eventually caught the alleged murderer hiding in a nearby ditch. I thanked them for their help and listened as my son complained about being so bored as he waited so long for me to get him. “I ate five snacks, mom, five. They just kept feeding me,” he said. He was never afraid.
I was never in danger. My son was never in danger. We are so blissfully lucky, aren’t we? Undeservedly so.
This lockdown at my son’s school happened about one week before the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex.. For about a week, I felt safe. But now, the one-month anniversary of the second deadliest mass-shooting at an elementary school in Texas is here.
I do not feel safe anymore.
On May 24, the day of the Uvalde shooting, I picked up my son at 3:35 p.m. and my hands were shaking. I buckled him into his booster seat, but I could not drive. I took deep breaths. I turned off the radio and listened to my heart pound in my chest. I held back tears as I thought of the children in Uvalde, afraid. Of their parents, afraid. I drove him home and let him do anything he wanted to do, played every game he wanted to play. And at bedtime, after he and his little sister were asleep, I crawled into bed with each of them and watched them breathe. I could not close my eyes.
After the nightmare in Uvalde, some Moroccan friends from my Peace Corps service checked on me more often than my friends or family in the United States. In my head, I know it is because of their limited knowledge of the geography of Texas. They heard “Texas,” and they immediately thought of me and my family. But in my heart, I sense that my Moroccan friends are more horrified by this violence than their American counterparts. We are growing hardened to it, numb to it, paralyzed by our inability to change it.
At my friend’s table, the day of our school’s lockdown, my afternoon of fear was brief and small. All I can do is press my hands to my eyes and feel gratitude for the safety I had and in grief for all those in the world with no respite. And if I could do it all over again and gather up some strength for a prayer, my prayer would be this: May you, too, find a table full of mothers. May you be handed a cold drink, may your body sink into the comfort of a friend’s dining room chair. May the fear be brief; may the ending be sweet.
But, also, now, my prayer would have to include this: May you never forget the feeling of bile in your stomach, fear in your chest, rage in your mouth. May these feelings propel you to comfort the mourners, to beat guns into plowshares, and to say “never again” and mean it.