A few weeks ago, I was touring preschools for my 2-year-old son — a favorite activity of the anxiety-prone first-time parent — when I noticed an unfamiliar document on the walls of one of the classrooms. Next to safety protocols for how to respond to a fire or a natural disaster, there was an entire list of steps for how to respond in an active school shooting situation.
This shook me, to say the least. My son had only just learned to stack more than three blocks in a row and use verbs appropriately; it was horrifying and devastating and teeth-gnashingly absurd to think that we now lived in a world where we had to add “responding in an active shooter situation” to this list. On top of all the fears and anxieties and neuroses I knew that my son would accumulate over the years like baseball cards, it broke my heart to know that he would have to collect that one.
But mostly, I felt guilty that this was something he would have to confront every day of his childhood, while I had not. I had gone to elementary school in the Nineties, in a pre-Columbine world. There were fire drills and ambiguous “shelter” drills, and the specter of the Oklahoma City bombings hung over our heads, but at no point would it have occurred to me or anyone I knew that there would be the slightest risk of someone walking into my school with a semi-automatic and blowing my head off, just because he was angry and just because he could. Even when I read about the Columbine shooting in the newspaper and I saw the photos of students leaving the building with their hands over their heads, I very clearly remember thinking of it as a fluke, an isolated incident, a horrific event that couldn’t possibly happen again, because 13 dead children and a teacher would certainly serve as enough of an impetus for lawmakers — the people who were tasked with the responsibility of protecting us — to let it happen again.
And then it did. It happened again, and again, and again, and again. It happened in Blacksburg, Virginia. It happened in Newtown, Connecticut. It happened in Parkland, Florida. It happened in grocery store parking lots and movie theaters and country music concerts. But mostly, it happened at schools, at places where parents dropped their kids off every day, implicitly believing that they would be safe. And parents must now live with the absolutely sickening knowledge that this assumption is wrong.
Despite 41 states mandating emergency drills in schools (and only four of them actually mentioning the word “active shooter” in their legislation); despite 95% of schools participating in lockdown drills; despite the advent of products like bullet-proof backpacks and Stop the Bleed kits to prevent loss of life following attacks; despite children being taught the importance of knowing where the “hard corners,” or classroom spaces away from doors or windows, are; despite every half-baked prophylactic measure we can possibly take to try to prevent the worst possible scenario from happening, the fact of the matter is that it can and will happen again.
When I had a child, someone told me that I would spend the rest of my life feeling like my heart was walking around on the outside of my chest. At first, I didn’t quite know what she meant by that — it seemed like the sort of tritely sentimental yet unhelpful statement that people regurgitate to new parents. But it didn’t take me long to realize how right she was: becoming a parent is to exist in a constant state of vulnerability, to walk around in a constant state of terror, to do everything in your power to prevent the rawest and purest parts of you from getting hurt but being haunted by the echoes in the back in your mind that there is always a limit to such efforts.
What Columbine — and, two short years later, the events of 9/11 — essentially did was throw the entire country into such a state. But while the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center prompted a flood of jingoistic sentiment, counterterrorist legislation and two wars, the devastating attacks on Columbine High School — and, later, Sandy Hook and Aurora and Virginia Tech and Parkland — did no such thing. We are now a nation of parents walking around with our raw and beating hearts still outside our chests, and until we start fighting the real enemy — the gun lobbyists and the greedy politicians they have in their pockets, who crow about the virtues of liberty and freedom while doing everything in their power to ensure that we will never have the liberty or freedom of knowing that we are safe from the threat of a mass shooting — our children will never know a world where that wasn’t the case.
Until then, parents like myself will continue going on school tours, silently waiting for them to stop detailing their curricula and facilities and stellar after-school music programs, so they can answer the one question we all want to know: how prepared are you to save our children’s lives? After one school tour, I drafted an email to the woman I met to, essentially, ask her this question. “I hate to ask, but unfortunately, this is the world we live in,” I said by way of a preamble. But I was only half telling the truth. I wasn’t sorry for asking. I just wished I didn’t have to.