First Person

Is My Young Child Safe at School?


In the two years since the massacre at Sandy Hook, there have been over 85 school shootings. And our gun-control laws are only getting looser.



The next time she sees the images of flashing red lights and S.W.A.T. teams in riot gear bloating the television screen at the bagel shop, tell her it was just a little accident.

“Where?” she’ll ask.

“At a school,” you’ll say.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.”

But you do know.

Of course you know why mothers and fathers are standing behind barriers at 10:45 a.m. watching high-school students stream from exits, their faces red and swollen and mottled with tears.

“Mama, why is that girl in the red shirt crying?” she asks.

You say nothing, pulling her toward you, hoping to obstruct her view of the hysterical girl in the red shirt now filling the screen. She hugs your legs. You continue to stare at the screen, your sense of things shifting, your mind falling into a place of desolation, a space where there are no words, where language melts away and you feel empty and numb and helpless.

Last time this happened it was an overcast day in mid June. It came up your news feed after a post about something you can no longer remember, they always come up that way.

Breaking News: School shooting at Oregon High School. Two dead.

“Mommy, I’m hungry.”

The line is long. You contemplate leaving, but you can’t seem to move.

The CNN ticker reads: Shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, Seattle, Washington. Two dead. Four seriously wounded.

You wince, shudder, and recall the ones before, the big ones—Columbine, Santa Barbara, and Sandy Hook. Two years have passed since that cloudless December day in Connecticut when Adam Lanza walked into his old school and began shooting first-graders. Tucked between the eulogies and apologies were promises for change: “Never again” would this happen. “Things must change.” But those promises have amounted to nothing except more football field memorials where roses and carnations lay wilting beside prayer candles and framed pictures of kids who died in libraries, classrooms, gyms, and lunchrooms.  

You remember some of their names. They appear in your head like the titles of old poems:

Olivia Engel. Emilie Parker. Noah Pozner. Catherine Hubbard. Christopher Martinez.

The last one you will never forget because for weeks his father unleashed raw and unbridled grief on national TV. You watched as he talked and grew red-faced and clenched his fists at God and at us, and for a moment, it seemed like he might simply fall over and die of a broken heart.

“Mommy, look at all the fire trucks. Maybe the accident was a fire,” she says.

“Yeah. Maybe,” you say.

                                                        ***

Later that evening you will learn the name of this shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, and the gun that he used. A part of you really doesn’t want to know how the young Fryberg shot his schoolmates. You remember not wanting to know how the last shooter, the one in Oregon, draped himself with an AR-15 assault rifle, a semi-automatic pistol, nine ammunition magazines, and a large knife. But it’s important that you do. For some reason, you need to know these details.

Maybe knowing them will help you to understand.

You learn that Fryberg used his father’s gun, a .40-caliber Beretta.

In a haze, you Google “.40-caliber Beretta.” It’s black and smooth and sleek, a James Bond kind of gun. The description says that it’s the choice gun for law enforcement and the military; depending on the model, it can carry up to ten magazine rounds.

You type in: “amount of ten magazines of ammunition.” You read that it’s enough ammunition for several hundred rounds. You wonder how many more people Fryberg hoped to kill. Was his rage always there or was it a gradual wrath, one that grew deeper and more pronounced the more he understood the world? Was it temporary or long-standing? You want to know the answers because for a moment the terror that he could have be your child or nephew or neighbor renders you impotent.

You learn that he loved to hunt with his father and often posed with his kill. He hailed from a prominent family and was a proud member in the Tulalip Tribe. He was 15 years old, a football player, funny, well-liked, and recently crowned “Homecoming Prince.”

As more details emerge, you begin to imagine what happened when Jaylen Fryberg walked into the crowded lunchroom. You wonder what traveled through his mind in those final moments before he raised the gun, marked his cousins and friends, steadied himself and began shooting.

You become stultified at the notion that a 15-year-old can shoot other 15-year-olds point blank in the back.

You remember the endless discussions about boys and violence and gun culture in America. It needs to end, they keep saying; we need to teach our boys compassion. But how can it end when it’s legal to buy toddlers real rifles, when 9-year-olds can shoot Uzi’s at shooting ranges, and when young men can easily build personal arsenals with enough weapons and ammunition to equip a small army. 

You think of Fryberg’s Instagram image, the one where he’s posing with the rifle his parent’s gave him for his 15th birthday in July, the one he captioned: “My new 17HMR!!! Love it.” You think of his mother and imagine her stroking his hair late at night when he was a baby and couldn’t sleep. You think of her now, today, hearing the endless chatter of how boys who shoot other boys and girls are monsters. You think of how they will blame her.

But it won’t matter.

She will bury him quietly, without ceremony, and then wrap herself in a cocoon of grief and disappear. Her nights will be haunted by images of her son as a little boy full of promise, and her days will be heavy with guilt and despair.

She is broken.

And then there are the mothers of the girls, all three of them. You can’t think of them for too long. Theirs is a reality that will consume you.

                                                       ***

You order your bagels, coffee, and a fresh apple juice.

“Look mommy there’s another girl crying,” she says.

“Yeah, she was probably afraid because of the accident. She’ll be okay,” you say.

Soon you won’t be able to lie because she’ll be able to read the screen telling you that the girl is “Laurie, friend of shooter.” As you unwrap the bagels, you imagine that conversation, that moment of explaining how friends sometimes go to school and shoot their friends. But don’t worry, you might say, your friends would never do that. They would never hurt you or anyone else.

You are safe.

That’s what you tell her every night when you put her to bed and whisper half-truths that you will always be there watching over her, that people are good and the world is a beautiful place. “Don’t ever forget that,” you say lying down next to her as she sings her made-up songs.

You take her hand, it’s still small enough to fit into yours. Soon it won’t be. Soon she will learn to brush her own hair; soon she will understand that the world is not so beautiful; soon she will ask you why you lied.

But not now.

Now, her voice is sweet and light, like air. It comforts you, pulling you to another world, a place away from the sirens and weeping parents, from the dirty laundry and crayoned walls.

You look at her chest rising and falling and you hear the sound of her breath filling the room.

You know it’s these memories that kill.

You can’t sleep.

Sometime before midnight, you move to the couch and spend the late-night hours mindlessly flipping channels, hoping to find someone who makes sense. You watch the reporters and pundits, with their vapid expressions and hurried voices, straining to find something new to say about guns and gun control and violence and mental illness in America. You hear them talk over and at each other, drowning the airwaves with words, fearing a momentary lapse into silence, as if silence was the worst thing that could happen.

They talk with conviction about this new shooting, and they inform us again that we must  “protect our children” by “putting armed guards in schools.” One, with a thick, furrowed brow, keeps repeating how we must “crack down” on the young who suffer from mental illness. America he declares “has a very serious problem with the mentally ill getting guns.”

They said this about the previous shooters. You remember the president addressing the nation and declaring that America “does not have a monopoly on crazy people.” No, it doesn’t you think, but it does have a monopoly on guns.

After one of the shootings, you read that America has the loosest gun control laws of all developed countries; it ranks first in the developed world for civilian gun ownership with 88.8 guns per 100 people, second only to Yemen. Further reading points out that every year American companies manufacture enough bullets to fire 31 rounds into every one of our citizens. 

You pause.

Move on.

Today’s shooting, the one you told your daughter was “just a little accident,” marks the 87th school shooting since Sandy Hook in 2012.

The statistics begin to terrify you. They make everything concrete, real. Sometime in the coming days, someone will hashtag or repost the number of firearms owned by civilians in America: 300 million. The post will garner something like a million likes. Are the “likes” because of the information or because it’s good we have so many guns? You will deliberate whether or not to “like” the post.

Soon, the graphs and charts with their peaks and valleys become harrowing indications of something that is bigger than you, bigger than everyone. The problem seems unfixable. In two years, your daughter will be in kindergarten.

You feel it will never end. 

But, you know that in some countries it has ended.

Australia, 1996: when Martin Bryant opened fire at a popular tourist site in Tasmania, Australia, killing 35 and wounding 23, it took 12 days for the Australian government to enact sweeping gun reform. Since then, Australia has not had a single mass shooting.

That same year in Scotland when a mentally unstable man entered the Dunblane Primary School and opened fire, killing 16 children and one adult, it took 18 months for Britain to pass some of the toughest anti-gun laws in the world, including a ban on private ownership of handguns. There, too, gun deaths have dramatically declined.

Not here.

Despite more than a decade of data from these countries, who you know have their fair share of “mentally ill” and the vexing statistics from our own gun-riddled country, the NRA and gun lobbyists remain steadfast that tougher gun laws are not the solution; in fact, gun laws, since Sandy Hook, continue to become looser. 

You remember this summer when Georgia, the leading state in school shootings, passed the “Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014,” allowing licensed gun owners free reign to openly carry their guns in bars, restaurants, airports, outside of schools, churches, public parks, shopping malls, and state fairs. You won’t forget how the governor who signed the Bill smiled and declared that “it’s a great day to reaffirm our liberties … the Second Amendment should never be an afterthought. It should be at the forefront of our minds.”

Yes. It is.

But discussions about Second Amendment rights when school kids are regularly being massacred no longer interest you. You have grown tired of the bold face lies and insipid adages that “guns don’t kill, people kill.” At 2:30 a.m., you feel like you have fallen down a rabbit hole, because instead of making it more difficult to get guns, the discussions on news channels are about arming teachers, turning them into first responders, putting thick Plexiglas on classroom windows, and buying bulletproof blankets for children, so when the next shooter bursts into their classroom and interrupts their circle time, they will have a shield.

This, you think, is the trade-off that our elected officials have offered us: children hiding under bulletproof blankets so the grown men and women of America can remain free to sling semi-automatic rifles on their shoulders and parade up and down the aisles of Kroger while shopping for Eggo frozen waffles and Marcal toilet paper.

This is it.

If nothing changes soon, you know another young boy will walk into another school and unleash his fury during homeroom or lunch or history. The TV will show us more parents collapsing, falling to their knees and tearing at their breast in front of curbside memorials, while gun advocates, holding rifles and pistols, stand close by ridiculing and heckling, calling them  “anti-gun nuts” and accusing them of using their child’s death to further their anti-gun agenda.

You are tired of their accusations and that helpless indignation of feeling that danger lurks just around the corner, at the baseball game, at the subway station, by the fruit aisle, and at school: You are not safe, your children are not safe, we are reminded over and over, as if we need reminding, as if the images are not enough.

But most of all, you are exhausted from sitting on the couch and folding into yourself from grief over children who go to school and become the victims of not-yet legal boys. You know that mental illness may be an underlying cause, but the ease of becoming a one-man army can no longer be ignored. 

My daughter is too young to understand anything about this event or guns or the young boys who shoot them. But, soon she will understand. If over 85 school shootings in two years are not a clarion call that we must begin to unstitch cultural gun mythologies rooted in worn platitudes such as “guns don’t kill, people kill” or “the violence is in the person, not in the gun,” then the bravest thing we’ll be doing is putting our kids on a school bus.

 

 

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