My students are working their way through The Rime of the Ancient Mariner when the superintendent’s voice crackles over the loudspeaker. “Excuse me teachers and students. We will now conduct a hard lockdown drill. Hard lockdown.” My class responds immediately, leaving their desks and joining me in the corner furthest from the room’s single entrance. Cody flicks the light switch off, and all sink to the floor. I reach for my anthology as I slide down along the wall, opening the book to where we’d left off.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” The teens lean in, silent and still, as I read in a stage whisper. If they have something to listen to, they can remain quiet. Too much silence and they’ll be compelled to chat. We all know silence is required. We also know this is “just a drill.” Still, its purpose sobers them. I don’t like the anxiety I detect on so many of their faces. Better to immerse them in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s cautionary tale from the 19th century than to have their minds wander to unspeakable places.
Though we practiced, “shelter in place” and “hard lockdowns” are no longer protocol for school shootings. If shots are heard in the building, experts now advise us to get the kids out – through the window if the hallway is blocked – and tell them to run like hell. My classroom window looks across the football field to a hay field beyond. Run like hell. They’d have to run quite a way before they could take cover in the stand of trees lining the river flowing alongside campus. Easy pickings for someone with an assault rifle. The image shakes me. Like something out of a dystopian horror film.
Mass shootings occur so frequently now, but despite what pundits say, I am not desensitized to the wreckage, the devastating losses. Each assault brings an onslaught of memories. I am no newcomer to drills in schools, to ushering students to a place of hoped-for safety.
For thirteen years I lived in Saudi Arabia, arriving in 1988 as a newlywed, wide-eyed and eager to explore this secretive exotic place but also naïve to its geopolitical significance, to the rumblings that lay beneath the surface along with all that oil that turned greedy nations ravenous. I taught language arts to an international group of junior high students on a campus just 200 miles south of Kuwait, where Saddam Hussein’s troops overran Iraq’s neighboring nation in 1990. The responding international coalition of troops that amassed under the direction of the U.S. military encamped all around us, and the airport from which they flew sorties was visible from my classroom window. We practiced drills then, leading students across a large rambling campus of purpose-built classroom buildings and makeshift trailers, to a Quonset hut that served as the gymnasium. Its advantage lay in its location, atop a hill that formed one end of campus, the furthest point from the highway that ran alongside the other end. The threat was twofold: an attack arriving via motorized vehicles or an aerial bombing. Gathering everyone in the most remote building and requiring all students and staff to carry gas masks in case of a chemical explosion was the best we could do.
Calm followed the speedy conclusion of that war, and the tension of living in a war zone eased. A few years later, however, fear surfaced anew. Bombs directed at American military still lodged in the cities of Riyadh and Al-Khobar revived the fears of the Gulf War days, and our classes were once again interrupted by drills and hasty hikes across campus to the gym. A spate of minor incidents – fake bombs left on doorsteps, phone calls warning of nonexistent explosives – led to more changes: vehicles were no longer allowed on campus; a new entrance was built, with metal detectors and security guards to search handbags, backpacks, and lunchboxes. The U.S. Consulate issued paradoxical advice to expatriates: the terrorists are targeting only military and “official” Americans – others are perfectly safe – but you should exercise caution, avoid downtown, if possible, vary your route to work. Be inconspicuous. As if Americans in the Middle East could be unnoticed.
On campus we reassured each other. Saudi authorities will certainly get a handle on this outbreak of violence. This was, after all, a military state despite its outward theocratic trappings. Dissent was not tolerated here. Periodically, neighborhoods would be raided, and suspects rounded up. Their trials were speedy, and harsh “justice” was dealt with haste. The heavy-handed vigilance created a climate of fear, of compliance, and for those of us who feared where rabble-rousing might lead in this foreign land, safety.
So we stayed on, blindly hoping the growing threat of terrorism would leave us untouched.
When a car bomb exploded outside the home of my children’s piano teacher, when a class trip to a local hospital was abruptly cancelled because a doctor had received a package that tore his hand off, when a father emerged from the supermarket to find a seemingly innocuous juice box on his windshield that erupted when he touched it, I wondered whether we should break our employment contracts. When my seven-year-old son asked his dad if he could help search the car for bombs one day after we left a shopping mall, I knew it was time to go. We left the Middle East.
I hoped to find security back home, a safe place to raise my children without fear, to teach my classes reading and writing, not how to save themselves in case an attack came to the door. I wondered what kind of impact the last few years in Saudi Arabia had had on my young boys – although we tried to keep our concerns from them, they, too, had walked through metal detectors each day at school; they, too, had participated in campuswide drills “in case of a car bomb.” It was the summer of 2001, a split second in time before all innocence was shattered for Americans, before our blithe confidence that we are somehow sheltered from the evil beyond our borders was lost forever. A Tall Ships celebration was taking place in a nearby city, and we wanted to see the sailing vessels. As we approached the collection of schooners anchored for display, seven-year-old Sean suddenly grasped my hand and pulled closer to me, away from the gutter he’d been balancing on.
“Mom!” his voice trembled. “Look!” He pointed to the gutter where an empty plastic water bottle lay. In Dhahran, random water bottles, like juice boxes, could be dangerous.
Understanding immediately, I put my arm around him. “It’s alright, Sean. It’s just a water bottle.”
A few days later, Sean and his five-year-old brother Chris accompanied me on a visit to their new school. I parked in a lot across from the elementary building, and the three of us walked toward a door that was propped open. From inside we could hear the thrum of an industrial vac polishing the hallway’s parquet floors, in preparation for the first day of school. As I moved to cross the threshold into the building, Sean again pulled on my hand.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
His eyes scanned the doorway. “Where’s the detector?” he asked. “The metal detector. Where is it?”
My heart sank. How long would it be before that particular effect of living in the Middle East wore off?
“They don’t need metal detectors here,” I assured him. “It’s okay, Sean. It’s Michigan. We’re safe here.”
After leaving the Middle East, we made our new home on the edge of one of the Great Lakes. We live several miles from the nearest town, a sleepy little place where businesses roll up their sidewalks by 7 p.m. in winter, if they remain open at all after Labor Day. This is a tourist destination, heavily supported by summer visitors and the annual springtime return of snowbirds who winter in Florida and Arizona. To reach the wooded lakeshore, you drive past miles of farmland. Traffic is nonexistent, unless you count the holdup caused by a tractor or a cultivator rumbling down a rural road. It was easy to be lulled into thinking we had found a safe haven, and we were not entirely wrong. The crime rate is low – an occasional domestic argument turns violent or a local bank manager embezzles funds, although drug-related offenses are on the rise, and the local newspaper occasionally carries a headline celebrating the latest sting operation to nab a meth dealer. So, while not immune from current societal ills, the place can feel like a throwback, not quite Mayberry R.F.D., but close. Rural life – quiet. Innocent. Peaceful.
The warped ideology behind the bombings in Riyadh and Khobar came to the United States a few months after our move, the same vengeful motivation wreaking death and destruction on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We watched the news with sorrow and despair, but also with a sense of insulation. My small town was far from those national landmarks, and our day-to-day lives were, for the most part, untouched.
I felt safe here.
In 2012 my boys were already in university when a young man armed with an assault rifle entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and gunned down twenty first graders and six adults. Until then, the small school where I had taught largely ignored the rising tide of gun violence in schools. The community shared the same naïve assurance that they were somehow immune as I’d often heard from colleagues in Saudi Arabia who were so sure our school would never be hit: “That’s so awful. Thank God it can never happen here.” The building’s external doors were often propped open for daily deliveries; parents and other visitors headed directly to their child’s classroom without checking in at an office; facilities were available for afterschool use by community members. Safety measures consisted of state-mandated fire and tornado drills and a smattering of playground rules.
After Newtown, that confidence was shaken. Staff meetings and lunchroom conversations were dominated by discussions of safety. Recognizing the shift in awareness, the growing sense of unease, our community passed a bond proposal for improvements focused on security: a new entrance for visitors, new locks on all doors, cameras throughout the campus.
Some politicians vowed to reduce gun violence by promoting new gun safety laws but shootings continued unabated. A Valentine’s Day attack at a high school in Florida left seventeen dead. A fifteen-year-old boy murdered four fellow students and injured seven others in Oxford, Michigan, a town not far from where I taught. The horror in Uvalde, Texas, left the families of two teachers and nineteen elementary children bereft. After each shooting, the media posts tributes to the victims, their names and faces becoming familiar and then replaced when the next massacre occurs. They are all distressingly similar: a star baseball player smiling with his high school team, an aspiring ballerina posing, a shy little girl modeling her new First Communion dress. She will be buried in that same dress just days after the photograph is taken.
A shooting on the campus of Michigan State University sent a few students running in fear for the second time in their young lives. They had been high schoolers in Oxford when a killer stalked their hallways. Fearing death by random shooting is now steeped into the consciousness of America’s youth.
“There was a time when there were no predators,” my husband announced abruptly during a recent morning walk. We had just paused along a country road that led to the lake to watch our golden retriever sniff a few tufts of grey fur scattered among tall grasses – rabbit, we determined. Torn apart. By a fox? An eagle or hawk? All that remained were bits of fur. Dan has been reading about the origins of the planet, the evolution of species, the various ice ages of the globe. He shared tidbits from time to time –seagulls whirling overhead sparked the observation that birds did, in fact, evolve from dinosaurs – and I welcomed the break from our usual topics of adjustments to our family budget or the latest ramblings of political pundits on cable television.
I considered the predator fact. “Well, that clearly was before mammals,” I commented.
“Oh, way before mammals.”
What a violent place the world is, after all. We learn in grade school of the balance between predators and prey, the cycle of birth and life and death, of an existence fraught with danger. We accept this as natural in the animal world. On a trip to Antarctica, I observe baby penguin chicks chasing their mothers aggressively, frantic for food. The penguin mothers slip into the frigid sea, searching for krill, keeping a wary eye out for predators. A leopard seal swims nearby, biding its time, concealing its presence among boulders rising from the shallows. On shore, the chicks are alone in a crowd. Giant petrels pick their way among the penguins; like the turkey buzzards in Michigan’s woods, these are scavenger birds, feeding on the remains of hapless animals. But on this day, two petrels attack a tiny penguin chick, dragging it into the surf to drown it. The chick struggles mightily and the petrels back off, but the chick is injured, badly, and probably will not survive its wounds. The petrels will have their meal.
Humans are not the only species to fail their young. If a baby albatross is unlucky enough to fall from its nest, its parents will ignore it, unable to recognize the chick outside the nest as their own, even as it struggles to return. If it is unsuccessful, it will perish. Tomcats ravage entire litters of kittens to bring a female back into heat, and male lions joining a new pride will kill off its cubs. Chimpanzees slaughter fellow chimps in surprising numbers. Even the little meerkat is murderous, ranking highest on a list of mammals that kill their own kind.
It’s a harsh place, we say. Only the toughest can survive. And humans are, after all, just another species of mammals.
Yet the comparison is false, isn’t it? For in the wild, predators kill for survival. Wanton lust for violence seems particularly human. We credit ourselves as separate from other animals, distinct, or so we have thought, in our abilities to think, to reason, to love. Humans, after all, created written language, formed societies for the collective good, developed civilizations and built monuments glorifying them. One of the functions of a civilization is to shelter the weak. Isn’t this the essential way we distinguish ourselves from other animals, through some elusive quality that defines our “humanity”? Anthropologist Margaret Mead defined civilization as a community that recognizes the suffering of another and seeks to alleviate it, a group with a collective sense of empathy and compassion. Nelson Mandela observed that “any society that does not care for its children is no nation at all.”
Given our inability to tackle gun violence in schools, what does that make us?
Over the past fifty years, school shootings account for a small but steady number of attacks each year until an upward spike occurred in 2018, followed by sharper rises every year since. Already, 2023 is on pace to outnumber previous years. Yet each new shocking incident fails to stun the nation into action. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become synonymous with a collective, helpless shrug of the shoulders.
Lawmakers murmur vaguely about the need for more “mental health,” offering no specific ideas, programs, or funding possibilities. Republican legislators who are staunch supporters of the sanctity of the 2nd Amendment wear AR-15 pins on their lapels at work where they block debate on gun safety legislation. After a school in his home state of Tennessee was shot up, Representative Tim Burchett said there is “not a whole lot we can do.” His own child, he admitted, is homeschooled.
Some call for “hardening” our schools and other public places. I remember the measures we took in Saudi Arabia – barbed wire enclosures around housing compounds, mirrors checking for bombs beneath cars, security guards peeking into children’s lunchboxes. We could, I suppose, turn America into an armed camp. I am not sure how that would work, though, when gun enthusiasts insist on their rights to carry high-capacity weapons freely wherever they go. The armed camp becomes rather like Edgar Allen Poe’s castle in The Masque of the Red Death, where the guests partied freely, believing they had walled off the threat of contagion only to discover it walking among them. The danger is enclosed within.
It is hard to make sense of it all.
In one sense, Tennessee Representative Burchett is not wrong. Only a fool would think we could ever fully eliminate the danger of one lone, disturbed person bent on wreaking as much havoc as possible before taking himself out.
But in so many other ways, the do-nothing-thoughts-and-prayers crowd is wrong. Knowing the levels of aggrievement and anger out there, knowing our safety nets fail to catch so many who are falling, we could do more to minimize the current horror. We could remove the element that guarantees maximum wreckage: the easy availability of assault weapons made for battlefields. While proponents on both sides of the gun control debate argue the effectiveness or lack thereof of weapons bans, scores of children are being slaughtered by assault weapons. At Sandy Hook, it took a gunman only eleven minutes to obliterate twenty-six children and teachers. That’s nearly three victims each minute. In Uvalde, a catastrophic failure by the police force resulted in delays as twenty-one people were killed. A video released later showed officers sobbing and vomiting after seeing the devastation. Would their response have been speedier if the gunman had not been wielding an AR-15?
As I anguish over the continued massacres of children, kids simply going to school, I wonder if my desire to guarantee their safety is unrealistic. Are we, like the animals in the woods around my home or the penguins at the South Pole, destined to live in constant danger? Is civilization really just an illusory screen pulled down to hide the brutish reality of human existence? My little home is like a secreted-away burrow beneath the roots of a great oak, a hideaway where I can tuck in, wary eyes turned outward. As a mother with adult children making their way in the world, I cannot look away. As a teacher, I sent hundreds, no, thousands, of young people into that dangerous world, filling them with every ounce of optimism I could muster, bolstering them with courage found in the examples of heroes in literature, in stories and poems and drama. If I’ve asked them to face that dark future, I owe it to them to see it, too.
So, I seek a glimmer of light, a sign of hope in all the chaos. We are a nation of polarized interests, as divided as we have ever been, I guess. Georgia’s Senator Raphael Warnock rebukes the “thoughts and prayers” crowd, reminding them that “it is a contradiction to say that you are thinking and praying and then do nothing … We pray not only with our lips we also pray with our legs. We pray by taking action.” His words recall Coleridge’s ancient mariner: “He prayeth best who loveth best, all things both great and small.”
While gun enthusiasts are impassioned, so, too, are those crying out for sanity in gun regulations. And while our legislators fail to respond sensibly, the young grow restless with impatience. After the attack on their school, Parkland students channeled their anger and grief to effect change, and their March For Our Lives event has transformed into a movement of millions of mobilized young people. The more recent shooting in Nashville resulted in protests at the state capital that became the talk of the nation for days. Longer established organizations like Brady and Giffords, both formed after gun violence against government officials, have reached out and are drawing in scores of younger Americans to join their fight. Young people are pushing back, demanding to be heard. They are finding power in their voices and in their votes. When despair threatens to send me into a spiral of pessimism and dread, the passion of the young gives me hope. They have the energy to fight. If older generations have given up, ceded responsibility for ensuring the security of the collective good, it is clear the newer generation is preparing to pick up the mantle. They are rallying for greater safety in a still free society.
If existence is truly one of survival of the fittest, then the young among us will prove to be the fittest.