Maybe this is normal for the age Miles is at, but he’s had a lot (like, A LOT) of questions about death lately. “What happens when we die?” “Are you going to die?” “Am I going to die?” All the usual first questions one might ask when coming to terms with mortality for the first time. I expected them eventually, but I didn’t expect them so soon.
And while we try to explain this as best we can without lying about it, he usually ends up tearing up and saying, “I don’t want to die.” We always reply with some sort of affirmation, comforting him and saying something like, “You aren’t going to die for a long, long time.” And it generally works because we believe it.
But lately I can’t help but think about the fact that Miles is starting preschool in the fall. It’s now impossible for me to consider this without also thinking about the state of modern schools, specifically what happened in Ulvide, TX last month. It happened a couple weeks ago, of course, but I’ve been struggling with my feelings and haven’t been ready to really write about it until now.
I was 19 when Columbine happened. I remember sitting in my dorm room at USC writing a paper for class, but being completely torn away from that work by the news. As details began to emerge — the troubled history of the kids who were dubbed the “Trenchcoat Mafia” — I felt then as I do now; everyone is struggling to find something to blame here because we need 1) something specific to vilify and 2) to rationalize this in some way. The kids’ parents failed them. The school failed them. Media drove them to it. All the same scapegoats and conversations we’re still seeing today. We didn’t know it then (although maybe we should have), but this was only the start of America’s Next Big Epidemic.
It’s no wonder, in the years that have followed, that we’ve gradually grown desensitized to mass shootings. Any attempts at developing a deeper understanding of the root problems or working towards even modest solutions are stymied by political ambition and bad-faith actors willfully spreading falsehoods to muddy the waters (the worst of them, Alex Jones, is FINALLY being held accountable for the heinous lies he spread in the wake of Sandy Hook which, as a reminder, happened a DECADE ago).
I’m certainly guilty of growing numb to these events, especially since Sandy Hook. Part of this is the monotony, but a bigger part is the pessimism that comes from perpetual inaction. And no, I don’t think actions that rob schools of their essential role of providing a warm, welcoming environment are valuable actions. The active shooter drills. The police. The insane debate that we should arm teachers. I’m an educator. I used to be a classroom teacher. And it fills me with rage seeing teachers robbed not only of their ability to meaningfully teach relevant content (apparently that’s best left to people with political agendas), but also what was formerly their duty (this was absolutely hammered home in my grad school program) to provide a welcoming, safe environment for all of their students — a place they can enter free of fear, regardless of what pressures they’re facing beyond those walls — where they can engage with material and each other. A place to learn, not a place to survive (which is to say, “surviving school” used to mean something quite a bit different).
And here’s Miles, just months from beginning what will be a 13+ year journey through school. Because of where Miles is in his life — and certainly where I am as a father — this shooting landed differently for me. The numbness was replaced by rage. By fear. By deep, deep sadness. It’s human nature to experience something like this and think, “This could never happen to me.” It’s our brain’s job to rationalize things like this, to keep us from being crippled by the fear of every possible negative outcome out there just waiting to devastate our worlds. Looking at Ulvide through the lens of parenthood has left my brain unable to fulfill this duty.
Someday soon, Miles is going to start asking much more specific questions about mortality. I’m not sure I’ll have the answers for him.