Finding Courage

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

March 2013
Lunchtime in the middle school cafeteria was wincingly horrible. Girls ate alone, pulled up into themselves and staring down at their food. Boys threw pizza behind me. The kids’ chitchat often veered toward the mean and bossy, and some of the students tried not to be noticed as they sought a safe, quiet place to eat.
These children—most of whom I’ve known for years—were all familiar. But for the first time, on that particular day, I noticed in them a hardening and sorrowing. When they were first-graders, the kids I knew would run up and hug me, wrapping their arms around my knees. Now, some of these newly self-conscious teens and preteens offered shy smiles of recognition, and a few of the braver ones came over to talk to me. As I scanned the noisy lunchroom, my eyes rested on the children whose parents were getting divorced or might have substance abuse problems and the ones who had lost a family member. They already had enough to deal with, and now they were faced with news of Newtown and apocalyptic Mayan prophecies.  

This wasn’t a typical day, and I probably was projecting my own heaviness onto them. Perhaps they were actually happy while discussing the imminent end of the world. Some kids thought it would happen by midnight. Some thought God would save them; others thought God wouldn’t, but would instead welcome them into heaven, which would be a better place than here, anyway. Soon they were debating, in hushed and somber tones, the very existence of a supreme being.

The mind invents all sorts of challenges and daydreams and scenarios, ranging from the mundane to the extreme, and as the students talked, I pictured the school’s layout, remembering which hallways led where and making mental notes about what to do should a violent incident occur: If a Bad Guy enters at point X, we could evacuate at point Z, but if he enters at Z, then we should try Y. Would I tackle him from behind, kick at his knees, try to gouge out his eyeballs? If I got my hands on a gun, would I remember my minimal training? Could I aim with precision and calmness? These are things you simply don’t imagine doing before you have kids—you don’t even imagine imagining them. But this was one of those times that I did. And this time, it stung.