My mom likes to tell a story about my first day at school. Always a Momma’s boy (to this day), I was less than thrilled to enter the hallowed halls of Beth Yeshurun Day School. As I sobbed uncontrollably and tears poured down my face, Principal Peggy Samet greeted us at the door. “Ronnie, if you continue to cry, you are not going to be able to stay at school,” she calmly said. Suddenly a big smile came to my face, “OK Mommy, let’s go home.”
Since the beginning of time, children have brought certain anxieties and apprehensions to their respective schools. Preschoolers often leave the comforts of home for the first time and have trouble separating and turning loose of Mom and Dad’s hands each morning. Those first crushes made us incredibly shy around our newest little boy or girl friends. PE classes meant bombardment or dodgeball and very few places to hide from the biggest and strongest kids (a few of whom may have been shaving in elementary school). Some form of bullying has always existed; my “dear friend,” Demetrius, insisted on keeping his shoes in my gym locker every day of junior high school. Other kids smelled like sweaty gym clothes; I smelled like Demetrius’ feet. (I also “voluntarily” bought him a soda each day.) School dances, standardized tests, final exams contribute to an entirely new set of fears, and today’s social media adds a frightening dimension that I know very little about for now (an article for another time).
My fifth and first grader daughters actually love going to school. Though they have trouble getting up in the mornings (who doesn’t?), they love their friends, their teachers, the nurturing environment. At this point, they don’t stress about their tests and they enjoy the after-school basketball practices, Zumba dancing and theater classes. They play with the boys just as easily as the girls and the drama that I know is coming one day soon has yet to rear its ugly head in day school.
Our Greatest Fear
And yet that drama is nowhere near as terrifying as another fear that children and parents across the country now must face every day at school. A fear so outrageous that it never existed in my generation; a fear so incomprehensible, so beyond the wildest imagination of a civil society, that it boggles the mind that we even have to worry about it. And yet every morning when our kids leave for school, we must pause, acknowledge that fear, and hold our breath just a little until they are picked up safely in carpool or walk back into the house at the end of the day. Once again, just a few days ago in Parkland, Florida, that unimaginable fear became reality as 17 young lives were lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the hands of yet another senseless act committed by an unstable and deranged individual using the deadliest of weapons (that were legally obtained).
So add Parkland, Florida to a list that includes (but sadly is not limited to) Marshall County, Kentucky; San Bernardino, California; Townville, South Carolina; Roseburg, Oregon; Santa Monica, California; Newtown, Connecticut (Sandy Hook); Blacksburn, Virginia. (Virginia Tech); and Columbine, Colorado. And these tragic mass murders are not limited to schools. Las Vegas and Orlando are well entrenched in our not-so-distant memories and were no less deadly nor tragic than the school shootings.
I remember Columbine like it occurred yesterday, even though it’s been almost 20 years. I still know the names of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the perpetrators, and became more aware of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the country’s gun culture when I saw Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. I actually remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable watching his interview with the iconic Charlton Heston, a staunch pro-gun activist, who was suffering from dementia and was characterized as a heartless gun nut who cared more about his gun ownership rights than the lives of those lost in the tragedy. At the time, to me at least, Columbine was an aberration and surely would not be repeated. That naïve sentiment seems like a lifetime ago. Sadly, I don’t even remember the names of the more recent perpetrators as these tragic actions have become more and more common.
The Routine Responses
And each time they occur, we immediately think about who we may know living in the most recent communities impacted and make sure they are safe. We hug our kids a little tighter that night and remind them about school safety if they are old enough to understand. We arrive at carpool to pick them up a littler earlier than usual and serve hot lunch or volunteer at the school just to be there (as if our presence will make a difference).
We become enraged about the gun culture and the inability of anything to ever change. We “like” comments on FaceBook and post “crying eyes” emojis on others. We get angry at posts that seem callous and uncaring and reject any gun control debate whatsoever. We bemoan the politicians who pay lip service, pray for the victims, and then tell us that now is not the time to “politicize” such a tragedy. We criticize the NRA for greatly contributing to this culture and providing “talking points” to their pocketed politicians that deflect the blame to others. We look up our political reps’ gun-related voting records and their NRA grades and write letters demanding action. We receive form letters that typically end with “God Bless America” in return (if we receive anything at all). We are reminded that “guns don’t kill people, bad people do” and we must do a better job dealing with mental health in this country (despite the funding cuts and recently repealed regs that make it easier for people with mental illnesses to buy guns). We are lectured that controlling the guns will simply mean more knife attacks or car crashes though clearly the ability for criminals to achieve the “mass” in mass murders pales in comparison when using these methods. We are “educated” about the true intent of our forefathers regarding the Second Amendment by folks who probably did poorly in civics classes. We learn that guns are needed to protect us from our own government.
We try to convey that we truly don’t want to take their guns; we simply believe that certain high-powered weapons (semi-automatic assault) should be limited to the military and law enforcement. And then our hunting buddies who don those Elmer Fudd outfits each week of the season disagree and claim that the leftwing “libtards” (that’s us) truly want to take away all of their guns and their abilities to protect their families. We hear about how many potentially tragic situations have been avoided because responsible gun owners were there to combat the bad guys. (I guess the Fake Media failed to report how often this actually happens; in reality, I believe they occur far less frequently than the accidental deaths and injuries that result from the misuse of these guns.)
We bring up Australia, Japan, Canada and the lack of gun crimes and mass killings there, only to be blasted about the differences in those cultures and how our unique freedoms would be infringed upon by following their leads. (We are the greatest country in the word, after all.) No minds are ever changed and we simply lose respect for anyone with contrasting viewpoints. A little time passes, funerals are held, schools reopen, some new ridiculous and inappropriate Presidential tweets reshape the national dialogue, the names of the perpetrators and victims are forgotten (by all but those whose lives will never be the same) and we return to the hectic routines of our daily lives (again forgetting to ask our kids’ friends’ parents if they keep guns in the house before scheduling play dates). Until the next time. Lately, there’s always a next time, sooner than later.
While Nikolas Cruz, Stephen Paddock, Omar Mateen, Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are directly responsible, they are not alone with blood on their hands. We are all responsible. Just like President Trump who shares some “heartfelt” scripture passage (though I guarantee he knows virtually no Bible verses), speaks of country unity and coming together, and then mentions nothing of the gun culture or the tens of millions he received from the NRA. We are all responsible. Just like Congressman Steve Scalise who himself was victimized by a gunman at a congressional softball practice just last year and, yet, whose website proudly promotes that his “pro-gun stance has earned him an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.” We are all responsible. Just like my Congressman, John Culberson, who also promoted a similarly exceptional NRA rating and endorsement on his website. (Interestingly, his site appears to have been revised over the past few days with no mention of the NRA. The NRA site confirms his A+ rating and its endorsement, however.) I have met my Congressman and appreciate his work for my district in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and his staunch support of Israel. I’m sure we share similar views on other issues, but I did want to point out that NRA rating.
We are all responsible. Just like Wayne LaPierre, the long-time CEO of the National Rifle Association who has uttered such profoundly inspirational words as “Guns don’t kill people. Video games, the media and Obama’s budget kill people” and “We’ve witnessed a fire sale of American liberties at bargain basement prices, in return for the false promise of more security… The America being designed right now won’t resemble the America we’ve been defending… The danger isn’t that Big Brother may storm the castle gates. The danger is that Americans don’t realize that he is already inside the castle walls.”
Time to Make a Difference?
But maybe, just maybe, we can begin to make a difference this time. (We’ve said that before.) Perhaps it will start with the grieving students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who are loudly speaking out against the violence and are proving to be the true adults in the conversation. Perhaps it will start with the fed-up parents who finally join groups like Moms Demand Actions https://momsdemandaction.org/ and decide to get involved in the cause with actions more decisive than posting a crying emoji. Perhaps it will start with the NRA-endorsed politicians who believe that supporting common sense gun laws is more important than donations received by the gun lobby to a reelection campaign (still looking for one of those). Perhaps it will start with some major donors who announce that they are withholding contributions to any candidate (including those they have long supported) until they come out on the “right” (correct) side of gun control as it pertains to assault weapons. Perhaps it will start with the military soldiers and veterans who understand the capabilities of semiautomatic assault weapons better that anyone and begin to convey that they have absolutely no application for hunting or home protection and should never fall into the hands of civilians. Perhaps it will start with a simple Facebook post, tweet, letter, phone call, or civil conversation between two reasonable parties with opposing views. Sadly, I do not know the answer at this point and am hoping that someone far smarter than me can offer some guidance because about now, I am feeling helpless, sad and strangely responsible.
Tomorrow starts another school day. My kids will move slowly in the morning and I will get irritated that they may be marked tardy (again), despite living just a few minutes away. We will drive past the iron gates around the perimeter of the school building, wave to the armed security guard who greets us outside the main parking lot, and look for that school-approved ID card I must show to enter the premises. Certainly, none of these measures existed in my school generation, but we have grown to accept such minor inconveniences in return for the promise of (some additional degree of) security. One of my daughters may become nervous that she didn’t complete her homework correctly. The other may worry that she will not like the hot lunch being served and her two bags of different chips will prove not to be a satisfying enough snack. And I will pause momentarily, acknowledge my daily fear, and hold my breath just a little until they are picked up safely later that afternoon and I hear them say, “OK Daddy, let’s go home.”