When I dropped Griffin of at school yesterday, I watched him walk through the chain link gate onto the black-topped school yard, his head freshly shaved (stay tuned for more on this). Without hair falling in his eyes, they looked bigger and greener as he kissed me goodbye, his slender neck exquisitely exposed, and my heart pushed against my chest as if urging me not to let him go. But I did, and he disappeared into the mix of sunlight and children filling the playground.
Two hours later, Ethan called, his voice muffled. ”What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m listening to this story…” he said. The sentence trailed off and I realized my husband was crying. The facts came out haltingly, as if by saying “shooting” and “elementary school” in the same sentence, the ugliness going on three-thousand miles away in a small Connecticut town was tightening its grip. ”How many kids?” I whispered, tears choking my voice now too.
“I don’t know, but it’s a lot,” answered Ethan. ”Who does something like this?“
My mind scurried backwards through the years to April 20th, 1999. Standing on a small rise outside of Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado, I was watching an impromptu shrine form as this close knit community poured out its shock and love in the form of teddy bears, candles, notes and balloons. I was on-assignment for the television show Extra!, and would ultimately spend a month in Colorado chasing stories about the two black coated gunmen, the murdered students and teacher, and a town convulsing in grief. I was young. I had no children. But HolyMotherOfGod how I felt that the dark shadow hanging over Columbine was a top ten version of hell.
Sitting in the car, fighting the urge to race back to school to physically shield my children from all the unseen threats lurking in the world, I sent an email to Bruce Beck. Bruce is the step-father of Lauren Townsend, the Columbine high school valedictorian whose bright future was cut short on that awful April day.
“I am heartbroken–and knowing you must feel the pain of the families in Connecticut so deeply,” I wrote to this man who became a lifelong friend after he and his wife gifted me the chance to tell Lauren’s story. “I don’t even know what to say. Sending lots of love to your whole family and keeping Lauren close to my heart.”
Bruce must of not known what to say either–as he kept it to one sad, simple truism: “At times,” he wrote, “our world really sucks.”
Yes. It does. Our schools are sacred places. And when they are defiled by violence it leaves us feeling exposed, rubbed raw by the knowledge that it could have been our school–our kids–in the firing line. Because there is no rhyme or reason to a tragedy like this. For me, it is the same feeling I have in a recurring nightmare, where I’m falling in slow motion from the top of a building. The immense fear is caused not so much by the free fall itself as by the uncertainty of when I am going to hit.
Ethan left to pick up our kids with a heavy heart. When he arrived at the gate, there was Griffin, holding a beautiful Christmas wreath that he’d bought for us at the school’s holiday bazaar with his own money. Its green, red, and gold sparkle spoke of joy and peace–words synonymous with this season of giving and hope– and he was so proud of his present. But as I thanked him for it, smoothing my hands over the new fuzz on his perfect, precious little head, I could feel nothing but sadness.