A Mother's Fear Post-Sandy Hook

One parent writes about the ever-present worry for her daughter in the age of school shootings.

Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters

My 5-year-old daughter is crouched into a yoga child’s pose position in the corner of our dining room as we eat supper. She’s showing me what her class is supposed to do if a bad person comes into her school.

“We get into rockdown position against the wall,” she says.

She still has on her pink leotard and tights from her ballet class, and I can make out Queen Elsa and Princess Anna printed on her panties, and the little knobs of her rounded spine. She looks like a turtle without a shell.

“You mean lockdown,” I say.

“Noooo! It’s Rock Down,” she slices the word into two. “We curl up like this, like a rock.” She’s showing off rockdown as if it were just a regular cartwheel.

After the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, they found the body of special education teacher’s aide Anne Marie Murphy slumped protectively over at least one of the 20 students killed there. Murphy died trying to be her student’s shell.

I wonder if the laoshi at my daughter’s Chinese immersion school would throw their bodies across my little girl’s back if a bad person stormed through their school. That isn’t in their job descriptions; to teach and protect doesn’t sound quite right for an educator motto. But I can see them going to heroic lengths to keep the children they see as their own safe from harm. In her Mandarin Chinese class, they call my daughter Bai Ailing. It means beloved and intelligent.

I wonder if any of the other parents at my kid’s school worry about the things I do. If they’re as paranoid or macabre as me. I didn’t always feel this uneasiness when I entered a school. I’ve dedicated most of my career to education—working as a teacher, an education reporter, and in public affairs for the teacher’s union. I know better. My husband, a journalist, reminds me that the odds are greater that our kids will get hit by a car, so I should worry more about making sure to hold their hands tight in the mobbed Costco parking lot. He’s right. Schools are safer now than they were in the 1990s. Shootings like the one at Sandy Hook are rare. Less than 1 percent of all youth homicides in this country happen at a school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And yet, Sandy Hook somehow disconnected the rational part of me from the emotional, and since then, I haven’t been able to shake the anxious feeling that overcomes me when I get near a school.

Every morning, the school principal at my daughter’s school stands with the staff by the drop-off lane—with a parka, gloves, rubber raincoat, galoshes or whatever the weather calls for—helping students out of their booster or car seats, for the littlest 3-year-olds in the preschool class.

I rarely use the drop-off lane. I want to see my daughter’s classroom. I park our minivan on a side street, buckle my 2-year-old into the stroller, and prod her big sister up the hill so she doesn’t get a late card. By this point, I’ve worn out the words “hurry,” “let’s go,” and “move it.” They bounce off her as she collects stray leaves for her leaf collection.

I breathe and try to remember to live in the moment—to  just let her live like a child.

The metal school gates are wide open, no buzz needed to get onto the campus at drop-off time. What a handsome school, I think, every time we walk up to the four-story red Gothic building. It was built 1902 and previously used as a Marist Seminary. The school is on the edge of the area in Washington, D.C., known as Little Rome because of all the Catholic institutions clustered close to one another. My own faith falters, but I still hope the prayers that once filled this building left residue, enough to create an invisible shield.

I case the joint every time I walk inside. It’s what journalists do. The main hallway is narrow and always congested, the walls lined with wooden cubbies that hold grubby backpacks, sleeping mats, and jackets. A hundred zao shang hao’s and zai jian’s flitter through the air as teachers, students, and parents greet each other good morning and hug each other goodbye. The vibe is always warm in this school.

I follow as my younger daughter toddles slowly behind her big sister, the school pro, all confidence in her light-up shoes and mismatched clothes she picked herself. I glance into the classrooms, through glass windows that give me a clear view of pre-K 4 kids noshing on a post-breakfast snack or preparing a make-believe meal in the tiny kitchen in the dramatic play center. I like how the windows into the hallway make the classrooms feel more open, how they let the light from the outside shine through. But really, I don’t like those windows. The better to see you with, I think.

* * *

Spending on school security systems is expected to jump to $4.9 billion in 2017, up from $2.7 billion in 2012, according to the Colorado-based research company IHS. Schools all over the country have been ramping up their fortifications since Sandy Hook: surveillance cameras, sensors, access control systems, intercoms, door buzzers, smartphone panic buttons, mass notifications systems, exploding smoke cannons. There are companies that now sell bullet-resistant glass for windows and doors and bulletproof white boards—developed from the same material used to protect U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from IEDs. Watchtowers, defensive stone walls, a moat—why not? It’s modern technology that somehow feels medieval, like we’re moving in the wrong direction.

The National Association of School Psychologists cautions that over-emphasizing extreme physical security measures may undermine the main mission of education, making children feel unsettled and unsafe without necessarily improving school safety.

Since Sandy Hook, there have been at least 136 other school shootings in America, an average of one a week, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates for stricter gun control. Some of these are isolated, targeted incidents or cases where a body was found on a playground or in a parking lot. Others involve kids bringing a gun to school in a backpack. Most of those shootings have resulted in injuries, not deaths—but that distinction doesn’t give me much comfort.

My daughter toggles between two kindergarten classrooms, one day Chinese class, one day English. Both classes are at the far end of the hall. When we get to her classroom, I see a few of her classmates in the reading nook. The bookshelves could provide some cover. The children could squeeze beneath the table holding the incubator and the cage with the baby chicks, Little Cloud, and Chocolate. They are learning about the life cycle. This is where it all begins, the egg, the chick.

The chicks will be whisked away after a few weeks, “back to the farm, to go back with their mom,” my daughter tells me. Beginnings are easier to explain than endings.

I try not to be too much of a realist with her, to spoil her ideal and wondrous view of the world. Santa and mermaids, she wholeheartedly believes in them like she believes she’ll one day have magical powers erupting out of the palms of her hands if she keeps throwing pennies into fountains. It won’t be long before she knows the truth.

There is no escaping from this classroom. No closet and no in-classroom bathroom like when she was 3 years old. That bathroom had the cutest miniature toilet, even if it was always dotted with pee puddles, and a toddler-sized sink that came up to my knees. I estimate at least 30 children and their teachers could have fit in that space, if necessary.

Last year, my daughter told to me that if a tornado came barreling toward her school, they were to go into the hallway and squeeze into the pine cubbies. Last year she had her own cubby, but now she shares it. Two children wouldn’t both fit in the same cubby.

“We're supposed to be quiet when we're in rockdown,” my daughter says. Oh, dear. I know my child well, and know she can't stay quiet for more than 10 seconds unless she's being subdued by her favorite PBS Kids shows or an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. She’s chatty. Talks up grumpy old store clerks in Chinatown and makes them smile. She builds a bridge between them by speaking in a language I don’t understand. They offer her free merchandise. Her teachers note on her progress report: “She is a happy child who comes to school ready to share her thoughts with her peers and teachers everyday.”

Would she cry? Or grow restless and want to know how much longer they have to say crouched down? Would she tell them about her weekend at that inappropriate time, or would she complain that her legs hurt from being in an uncomfortable position? I tell her she needs to learn to control her emotions. I tell her the teacher is right.

* * *

“What does your teacher say about who a bad person is?” I ask after considering whether I should broach the subject.

She shrugs her shoulders up toward her ears, and mumbles I dunno.

She doesn’t know the enemy? When I was a kid in the 1980s, my brothers and I constantly played a videogame called Raid Over Moscow on our Commodore 64. I watched film reels depicting nuclear obliteration, and Rocky IV. I didn’t fear someone storming my school with an assault rifle. I feared the shadowy Soviets dropping an A-bomb on my school, in the middle of rural South Texas.

School shootings weren’t on our minds in the ’80s. The only school shooting I ever heard about growing up was the sniper shootings from a clock tower at the University of Texas, which happened in 1966, more than a decade before I was born. That spree, which killed 14, wounded 32, and psychologically terrorized countless, remains Texas lore.

The name Adam Lanza doesn’t ring a bell to my daughter, but it sets off alarms inside of me. The attack he committed lasted less than five minutes but it used up 154 rounds. That’s a shot fired every two seconds for the duration of an entire song. He killed six educators along with the 20 children.

“How do you know if they're bad?" I ask my daughter again, but the window has already closed on me. She is at the high chair bothering her little sister, turning the already strong-willed toddler into a hornet. The little one starts flinging pieces of her enchilada onto the floor. I tell my older daughter to leave her sister alone, to run upstairs to get ready for a bath. I open the baby gate to let our two geriatric, beast-sized dogs hobble in to lick up the mess.

My 5-year-old is done explaining rockdown, but my mind still lingers.

My second child was born days before Sandy Hook happened, so I can say exactly how long it’s been since that tragedy. I usually have a thick skin when it comes to dealing with things like that. It’s how journalists work, by keeping the heart still to sort through the facts and details with a clear mind. I sobbed for days after Sandy Hook, clutching my newborn to my chest. I had never done that from hearing bad news.

David Altheide, a Regents Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied the relationship between media and fear, tells me Sandy Hook is different from other school shootings and other mass shootings because the victims were so young.

“Children this young are very deeply regarded in our culture as innocent and as the most vulnerable in all the world,” Altheide said. “If you were going to come up with a symbol of what innocence is, it’s a newborn baby, totally unprotected and vulnerable.”

The images of distraught parents grieving plus the sharing of our grief on social media reinforced our emotional connection to the tragedy and our sense of anxiety, Altheide said.

“Sandy Hook, along with Columbine, are the symbolic golden tip of terror against our children,” Altheide said. These two school shootings connect to a greater discourse of fear in our society, driven by the media, that goes back to the era of Stranger Danger, when we feared our children would be kidnapped, he said.

Three in 10 parents worry about their children’s safety in school, according to a Gallup poll. And statistically, I am also in two categories most likely to worry: mothers and nonwhite parents.

“Some of this is a bit contrived,” Altheide said. “The things we fear are things we cannot do a lot about.”

Sometimes, I am reminded of Sandy Hook when I least expect it, like recently, while I was standing in line at the National Book Festival with my two daughters, waiting to get a children’s book about Hispanic American Heroes signed by its author, the U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. As the girls sprawled out on the red carpet laid over the concrete convention center floor and whined about how bored they were, I flipped through the book. At the end, I found a poem, a sestina for Victoria Leigh Soto, another teacher shot at Sandy Hook while shielding her students. I can visualize her face, her beaming smile, bright eyes and long dark hair, even though there is no illustration of her in this book. I read:

They went into lockdown they covered windows and sang to the children

Said, “I love you,” under desks, bathrooms, storage rooms, quiet strength

Strips of paper, crayons, in the midst of terror, a drooling gun, a teacher

Those are the images that come to mind whenever I get near a school, the ones that make me feel dread in my gut. It’s been nearly three years since Sandy Hook, but schools still seem like fortresses. In its own way, it all feels a bit like the nuclear disaster I feared as a child, the radioactive waves still rippling out long after the initial bang.