Department

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.

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.
 
Since then the mood has shifted, as moods tend to do. The flags are back at full staff, the kids seem less burdened, and I have rediscovered my usual balance of recognizing the beauty alongside the sorrows. I feel sturdy again in generating my own everyday courage, fighting my regular battles, and trying to have a big heart. Although I won’t likely be asked to tackle a gunman, I am called upon daily to smile and encourage and love.

In this way, by taking care of our own little worlds and by watching others rise to their challenges, I’m certain that we help each other along. I know the father who’s a police officer will give up more free days to check on the school. I know the county sheriffs have been trying to formulate a better safety plan. Security cameras and mental health professionals have been amped up, and lockdown drills and security protocols are all in place. I know that our principals, who steered their schools through the High Park Fire last summer, are becoming increasingly adept at navigating crises. The teachers, bless them, continue to wisely say the right things to young souls.

A part of this is sad, but it’s also inspiring, the way we wake up and face the day and try again. It’s only by shrugging off the burdens and searching for the light and the smiles that we’ll be able to display our everyday courage, our own special way of tackling the gunman.