Finding Courage

How a December of terrible news forced all of us to rethink everything—and ultimately return to some basic truths.

March 2013

I forced my daughter and son to attend school on the “Mayan apocalypse”—December 21, 2012—even though many of the kids at their middle school opted out. Their peers stayed home on the grounds that it was nearly vacation, and that the gossip in the hallways was of shooters and uprisings and people going crazy. Not wanting my kids to think it was OK to give in to wonky societal hoopla, I ignored their pleading-eye protests and instead explained the importance of showing up and facing fears—the everyday, non-Hollywood courage you get from rising each morning and trying to do your best yet again.  

This felt about half right and half crap. I had my worries, too. The flag outside their school still fluttered at half-staff in tribute to the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings. Over the previous few days I’d received emails and robocalls about our school’s Crisis Management Plan. The local sheriff’s deputies, I knew, had just toured the building, formulating their own updated procedure. Fear is often a legitimate and smart response, and the whole scenario left me wondering what guidance, exactly, I should employ here. Where is the line between courage and stupidity?

I’d decided to hold firm on my insistence that the kids attend school when, against all adolescent odds, my daughter asked me if I’d at least come to lunch with her. None of her friends would be there that day, she explained, and she was still anxious about potential violence. If I was there for a while to break up the day…. It was a fair compromise.  

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only parent to show up. One father, a police officer, spent an off day hanging around the school. A school official moved from her normal workspace to the main entrance with her laptop, which meant she was sitting in a cold and noisy area trying to work while wearing a coat and gloves. Extra teachers were positioned throughout the school, and extra parents were stationed in the parking lot.
This was everyday courage at work. But instead of comforting me, it only made me feel heavier, in the existential, bone-deep sense. Tired from my own semester of teaching, worried about my college students—especially the few who seemed edgy or had written stories of death and mayhem—and drained from wincing at every half-staff flag I drove by, December 21 was one of those days when being a parent seems like the worst idea ever.

Yes, parents can be notorious complainers. I try not to grouse about it because, after all, most of us freely chose this path. Even so, on some days it’s hard to ignore the regret of passing on this burden, this suffering, to other innocent souls born into a world that is anything but.