Today I am thinking about my husband’s upcoming birthday and how much fun we will have doing all the sundry activities I have planned. I am worrying about catching the flu. I am feeling overwhelmed by my to do list and the large stack of ungraded papers sitting in the basket before me. I am dreading working out. I am planning what I will cook for dinner. I am decidedly and emphatically not thinking about the mass shooting that took the lives of too many innocent people in Florida yesterday. I don’t know exactly how many died. I don’t know how many victims were students vs teachers. I don’t know the name of the high school or even the name of the city in Florida where all this took place. I have studiously avoided watching the news, and I have become increasingly selective in what posts I choose to acknowledge on social media. A friend got engaged (like), an acquaintance brought home a new baby (like), someone stole Carl’s Mountain Dew out of the office fridge (angry face), a hedgehog took a bubble bath (heart), and then a news post containing the word Florida…hard scroll. After seeing the extreme (and highly appropriate) emotional response shared by so many of my friends and family, I am left thinking: what’s wrong with me? Why am I not weeping? Why am I not watching my daughter sleep in her crib, paralyzed with fear at the thought of sending her off to school? Why didn’t I panic when the fire alarm suddenly went off at school today? Shouldn’t I be researching current gun legislation? Writing my congressman? Reviewing our school’s active shooter policies? Sending out my thoughts and prayers to the people in Florida? At this, I realize that it hasn’t even occurred to me over the course of this entire day to pray about it at all. That is how thoroughly I have blocked it from my consciousness. I can do that. I have that luxury because this didn’t happen to me or to anyone I know personally. I can choose to ignore it, refuse to acknowledge it, and it will have absolutely no bearing in my day to day life…
Except when it does.
One day in the not so distant future, I will go to the movies, and for a moment after sitting down I will get that sudden feeling of panic high in my chest. I know it well. I will take deep breaths and familiarize myself with all the exits, and eventually my heart rate will slow. I will remind myself that nobody wants to plan a mass shooting at a Tuesday night sing-along showing of The Greatest Showman because I, my husband, and an elderly lady in a wig do not exactly constitute a “mass” to begin with. But there will be a moment– there always is– a few minutes into the previews when a vision of our bodies, bloody and lifeless among the discarded Icee cups and loose popcorn will flash before my eyes. Within seconds I will have it locked tightly back into its little box, and I will be delightfully relishing the crisp hat snapping suavity of Hugh Jackman, but the uneasiness will stay with me. My breath will catch in my throat each time the usher comes in or the lady in the wig grabs her purse and stands (spoiler alert: she’s going to the bathroom). Inevitably, I will find a way to settle myself and once again immerse myself in blessed fantastical oblivion that is the right of every movie-goer. I will not allow myself to dwell on the still small but increasingly growing statistical likelihood that I, too, could die a victim of gun violence.
Except when I do…
Except when I am in the middle of teaching a class and our principal suddenly calls a lockdown over the intercom. Though I know it is just a drill, smiling placidly at my students, I will lock my door as protocol dictates, and I will sit down at my desk. I will sit down so that I can get my breathing under control. I will secretly check my pulse, willing it to slow. I will walk over to the window in my classroom and casually finger the latch, mentally confirming that it can be sprung quickly. I will look into the faces of my students and pray the prayer I have prayed a thousand times: Lord, keep us safe, but if something happens, Lord, help me be brave enough to protect my students. Give me the ability to get them to safety, and if I must, give me the courage to take a bullet for them. Even the ones I don’t like. Especially the ones I don’t like. And, Lord, let me just reiterate once more how much I really, really, really don’t want to. Time and time again, I try to imagine how such a scenario would play out. I imagine myself ushering my students to awaiting emergency personnel with poised calm, stopping periodically to comfort a hysterical student or two. But in the very real moments that follow the drill, I know that I’m the one who would be hysterical. That, barring divine intervention, I’m not sure I will be able to take a bullet for those kids. In fact, I fear that if I’m not crawling over them to get to an exit, I will probably be curled in the fetal position weeping as they crawl over me. Even as I sit at my desk I have to suppress the urge to jump out the window without so much as a glance at my students and sprint to the safety of the nearest heavily fortified building. The terror is very real. And this is when I know it’s only a drill. In these moments of sheer panic I take stock of myself, and I know if that day comes, I won’t be good enough. God keep me from such a day.
Perhaps it is that fear: fear of dying, fear of watching the death of students, colleagues, loved ones, fear of my own cowardly inadequacies that compels me to methodically ignore this tragedy. To view it as a distant dream or the plot from some storybook. I feel overwhelmed with guilt by my lack of empathy because I know deep down that this really happened to someone. The victims were somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s parent, somebody’s teacher. Somebody who could have been me. The immediateness of it is too much for me. So I turn away. I scroll past. How many mourning families wish they could do the same today?
I am ashamed.
And then I ask myself what can I do? If I let it all in, and all the pain and fear and bitter mourning that comes with it, how can I help? I can’t change it, can’t erase it. I feel incredibly impotent when it comes to wading through the political minefield that is gun control. I know something needs to be changed. I know something is broken in our society and that it is costing us the lives of our children, but what can I do??? Today it wasn’t my child. Can I bear to ask if it will be mine tomorrow?
No. I can’t.
The truth is I have zero answers. I don’t know what to do. When I allow myself to look, I find that I am filled with an overwhelming sense of sorrow for the victims’ families in Florida, but what good is my sorrow doing them? I resolve to privately ask God to help those families and heal that community, and I have faith that he can. But it all just feels so trite in the face of what is actually happening. In the face of their unimaginable grief. Even in writing this, although it has been cathartic, I had hoped to arrive at some definitive conclusion by the end. I thought that if I took the time to organize my thoughts and put them down on (metaphorical) paper, I would surely arrive at some answers, some conclusion. I always tell my students that all papers must have a decisive conclusion that sums up their main points and makes a real world connection. But now there is a mental asterisk that tethers itself to this advice:
Except when they don’t.