No Parent Should Have to Live Like This

I spent last week mourning those murdered in Buffalo. I will spend this week mourning children murdered at school.

Illustration of a child in red with blue stars and stripes in the background
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

About the author: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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Four days ago, I filled out the paperwork to register my son for kindergarten. After I sent the email—filled with attachments of IDs, birth certificates, proofs of residence, and immunization records—I turned to my wife and said the ultimate parent cliché: “They really grow up so fast.”

I picked up my phone and began scrolling through photos of my son from the day he was born, almost five years ago, his pink-brown body awash with wrinkles and wonder. I kept scrolling and saw photographs of him in the crib where he slept (and too often did not sleep); photographs of him chasing a flock of birds in the park, his arms raised as he toddled toward them with breathtaking inelegance; photographs of him after he had applesauce for the first time, his eyes gleaming, his smile as wide as the sky, his lips covered in a chaos of golden mush.

The school where my son will attend kindergarten is just a few minutes’ walk away from our house. The other day (when his preschool class was closed because of a COVID case) we walked there during lunchtime so that he could see the students at “the big-kid school” he would be attending come fall.

The scenes were as you would imagine at an elementary school during recess. Soccer balls bounced against legs and grass and gates as a group of children chased the balls around with little regard for who was on whose team. Kids slid down the slide in every fashion—backwards, forward, headfirst on their back, headfirst on their stomach—before tumbling to the mulch waiting at the bottom and then running back up to do it all over again. Some chased one another with sticks, pretending to be wizards or superheroes or wizards who were superheroes. My son was thrilled by all of this. I mean, who wouldn’t be? Elementary school is a place where innocence abounds, where laughter ricochets off the walls in constant, endless cascades.

It is this innocence, this hope for laughter and levity in the halls that hold some of our smallest humans, that makes the news of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, yesterday so devastating. At least 19 children and two adults were murdered by an 18-year-old gunman. It is the deadliest mass shooting this year, the second-deadliest school shooting of the past decade, and it comes just 10 days after what had previously been this year’s deadliest mass shooting, when a white-supremacist gunman murdered 10 people in a Buffalo grocery store, in an attempt to kill as many Black people as he could.

I spent last week thinking about what it means to be Black in a country where people hunt you and hope to livestream your murder. I will now spend this week thinking about what it means to be a parent in a country where your child may not come home one day because a teenager was able to so easily buy a gun. These statements are not hyperbole; they are empirical. There have been more than 200 mass shootings in America in 2022; 27 of those have been in schools. Texas recently lowered the minimum age for purchasing a gun. Hate crimes are at their highest level in more than a decade. White-nationalist language has been mainstreamed and amplified.

In Uvalde, children woke up yesterday morning. They may have had their favorite cereal for breakfast. They may have tied their shoes in double knots. They may have kissed their parents, who were hurrying off to work never once considering that they wouldn’t see their children when they got home. They may have laughed with their friends on the bus, telling the sort of jokes that make elementary-age bellies rumble with delight.

Now 19 of them will not come home. They never will.

I am a writer, but I feel as if language fails me in moments such as this. What vocabulary can describe the heartbeat of a parent pacing for hours outside a school, waiting to hear if their child survived? What sort of sentences can capture a fear that no family should have to hold? What words could ever be commensurate with the lost lives of so many little ones?

I want to live in a country where my presence is not seen by some as an existential threat. But this feels like a fantasy. I want to walk past the school where my son will attend kindergarten next year and see a place that will keep him safe. But this is impossible. We live in a country that has failed us. Where legislation is written—and erased—by the gun lobby. Where manipulations and distortions of Second Amendment rights prevent politicians from enacting any semblance of sensible laws that would at least attempt to prevent this. Where claims about what our Founders wanted supersede the slaughter we see right in front of us. Where the cocktail of easily accessible guns and the normalizing of extremist views makes nowhere feel safe. There is no other country in the world where this happens. And the fact that it does happen, and happens with such frequency, is reflective of a choice that has been made. But just because a choice has been made doesn’t mean that different choices aren’t possible. Different choices are possible.

Ten-year-old Amerie Jo Garza was in fourth grade and had, only hours before the shooting, received her honor-roll certificate at the school awards ceremony. There is a photo of her father, Alfred Garza, holding a photograph of his daughter on his phone, which shows her moments after receiving the award. Her eyes are bright, her smile brimming with pride. She was one of the 21 people killed.

There are parents today scrolling through photographs of their children, realizing that there will be no more photographs of them to take. We cannot continue to live like this, but I fear we will.