It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, because my life keeps getting in the way. My best intentions fade, not in the face of busy-ness, but in the face of my own unwillingness to speak; it’s been a hard month, mostly because of things I have zero control over. None.
So tonight, I was digging around in some old computer files looking for something called an Assessment Form. (Don’t ask.) What I found was an essay I wrote in April of 1999, when I was also knotted up by things I have zero control over. Here is that essay. My children are grown, but it’s still relevant, I think.
What I Learned in Third Grade
Scattered over the floor of my car, right now, are six math homework sheets with smiley stickers, two soccer balls, a set of roller-blades and pads, a language arts workbook, and, oh yes, a copy of a “Notice to Parents” from my son’s third grade teacher. Northwood Elementary, the notice tells me, will have an “Intruder Drill” on Thursday. “Please prepare your child.”
Eleven years ago my husband and I left Hampton Roads, with its 2.5 million inhabitants, for rural Southwest Virginia. Drive-by shootings in our city were so common that they never made the paper’s front page, or got any mention at all on the evening news. Our house was burglarized twice, once while we were inside it. One of our friends’ sons was expelled from school for acting as a go-between in a drug deal. He was ten. The schools, churches, synagogues, gymnasiums, libraries, even the malls, bristled with metal detectors, armed security guards and paranoia.
Most people we knew, including us, invested a lot of money in security systems, and even then the madness leaked in around the sealed windows and under the deadbolted doors. I never napped outside in the hammock, and the girls did not play alone in the yard. Sometimes there were particularly bad nights when I would hear gunfire in the housing project behind our back fence, nights when my husband was working, putting the people in front of the bullets back together. I would stand in the window of my darkened room, watching the shadows with a pounding heart, while my children slept under their Pooh mobile, I as helpless as they.
We vowed to ourselves that our baby daughters, snuggly, cheerful two-year-olds, would not grow up in this world, even if it meant a smaller school system, longer drives to live theater and museums, the unavailability of some very good things. And so we left, came home to Appalachia where shootings mostly apply to deer and turkeys. We knew we were buying some time.
We bought eleven years. Now, the fear of the madness, if not the madness itself, has caught up with us. Intruder drill.
How do you prepare your child for the threat of violent death? Why should you have to? Can we lock enough doors, huddle in enough corners, detect enough metal or arm ourselves enough to ever feel completely safe?
It is the day after the tragedy in Littleton, CO, and my children are playing with other kids in a park across town. It was very hard to let them go; I felt like a careless parent. They kissed me in the preoccupied way of children going off to have a good time, and they were gone. Now I sit on the edge of my herb garden, ostensibly pulling weeds, but really listening for shots, sirens, sorrow. It is not a satisfactory pursuit. Eleven years later, I am still helpless. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that I will always be helpless, and, wracked by the tension between love and helplessness, I pick up the cat and go inside. There is nothing to listen for.
I asked my son, who, at eight, has never lived anywhere but the mountains, what an intruder drill was and how he felt about it.
“We go into the corner and lock the door,” he said, nonchalantly. ”Mr. Reed comes around and checks to see if he can spot us. If he doesn’t see anybody, we get ice cream.”
Treats. For successfully hiding from someone who wants to kill you. I wait for Chip to tell me how he feels about this, but he has launched into a long description of Josh’s abilities at kickball. This is all the preparation for the intruder drill that he is going to get. I tell myself that the drill is a fad, a modern version of the bomb drills of the 1960’s. But my brain still plays the footage of running teenagers, frantic parents, sobbing friends and relatives. Every morning, after my kids have left the car and gone chatting into their respective schools, I find myself biting back tears. I spent eleven years feeling secure and in control; now I wonder, every single morning, if I will get my children back.
After a week or so of this I can’t help but wonder if I’m not drawing the wrong conclusion here. The response of my white, middle-class, suburban culture has been to have intruder drills, to install metal detectors, to do all those things that didn’t work in Hampton Roads in 1988 and are not going to work now. Helplessness and paranoia are suffocating me, my children, their friends. The message is not, it seems to me, to batten down the hatches still further. There is no riding this one out. It is never going to stop. I am never going to be anything but helpless, and by extension, the schools, the town, the county, the Authorities, whoever they are, are stuck in helplessness, too.
This is a lesson that cancer survivors, AIDS patients, residents of war zones and other sufferers learn far more quickly than we comfortable people: we are not in control of anything. God may be in control of things, but we are so far incapable of understanding what that means that we might as well accept our inability to manipulate events.
Far from dumping us into despair, however, our helplessness teaches us something valuable, which may be why we have it. Every moment is precious. It sounds so stupid, so trite, so much like a banal motivational poster. I hate the very insipid-ness of it, the same way I hate Precious Moments statuettes and cards with kittens on them. I don’t believe for an instant that the world is simple or reductive. But. We read stories to our son every night and snuggle in our bedroom chair, thankful for the pressure of his warm, healthy body. I braid my daughters’ hair and laugh at their jokes and let them wear my shoes. We write letters, go out with our friends, throw open our rarely-locked doors. Here, we have learned to say, is another day not wasted. Precisely because we are helpless, the world should be echoing, reverberating with “I love you. I love you.”
When the fateful day arrives, I ask Chip how the intruder drill went. He bursts into uncontrollable laughter, dribbling peanut-butter cookie down his chin.
“Whitney and DeMarcus and I hid in the back corner of the closet, all squeezed up in there. We were telling jokes and laughing and DeMarcus farted and, Mom, I thought we were gonna die.”