“It Could be a Lion”
When the tornado sirens went off early last week, it was the height of pandemic excitement. We’ve memorized the routine of our neighborhood after repeating it for 54 weeks, and that routine includes a weekly test of the tornado warning system every Wednesday at noon. “It’s the Wednesday alarm!” the boys say as they eat their lunches.
So when the sirens went off just before 10 AM last Wednesday, they noticed. “It’s not lunch time! Is it a tornado?” Despite the sunbeams streaming in through the window, they had to ask.
The early alarm was a statewide drill, and we decided to participate — another homeschool lesson in throwing your routine out the window. We settled into the basement, where my older son — a second grader — started talking about the drills they do at school. Lockdown drills. Over a year out of the classroom, he still remembers the details.
“A level one is when something is happening outside,” he explains. “You just keep going, stay in your seat, but maybe a little quieter.” He continues, “level two, something is in the hallway. You go and hide. My hiding spot is in the housekeeping area in the back of the room.”
He’s so casual about it, as though it’s just as routine as lining up for lunch or running inside when the teachers blow their whistles at the end of recess. Which, I realize, for him it is. Crouching silently in a play kitchen is just part of an American elementary education now.
“Level three,” he says, “is when something is inside the classroom. That’s when you hide under your desk.”
Here we are, all home in the middle of the week due to an invisible virus, hunkering in the basement from a pretend tornado, and talking about nebulous “somethings” that may someday enter his classroom when he finally goes back to school. No wonder he has trouble going to sleep at night — we’re teaching him that threats can materialize out of thin air. How does a seven-year-old process that?
I need to know what he knows. “What is the something?” I ask him. “What are you hiding from?”
He maintains the confidence he’s had throughout the whole explanation. “It could be anything,” he tells me. “It could be a lion.”
Being cutoff from your peers for a year means being cutoff from what they know. So for the cost of all we’ve given up this year, we’ve bought our kids a few extra months of innocence. They get to keep believing in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, because there’s no one in the cafeteria claiming they aren’t real. They get to believe that a lion could be lurking in the elementary school hallway because no one has explained that they might be confronted by a man with an assault rifle while they’re busy in housekeeping with their friends.
I’m not ready to tell them that. Not yet.
I don’t know how to have the talk about mass shootings in America with my kids because my parents never had to have that talk with me. Columbine happened two months before I graduated from high school. What we thought then was a horrible incident became something much worse: a horrible trend. And the only thing that’s stopped it is a horrible pandemic. When the schools are closed, they can’t be targets.
I can’t write this without mentioning the horrific shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, just this month. I’m so sorry for these people, their families and their friends. To paraphrase Barack Obama, we cannot accept mass murder as a condition of getting back to normal after Covid. It is not normal. It is not a price we should be willing to pay for a deranged interpretation of the word “freedom.”
In the near future, I’ll have to admit to my kids that Santa isn’t real. It’ll be be bittersweet, but expected: a ritual moment of growing up. But around that same time, I’m also going to have to explain that there’s no need to fear a lion in the hallway. In fact, it’s much worse: the thing you have to fear is us.
That’s the new ritual of parenthood. We have allowed ourselves to get to a place where conversations about murder in the classroom are something that every parent now has to have with their children.
We should all be furious about it.
*Update: minutes after this was published, four people were killed in a shooting in a California office, including a child.
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