Today is one of those days that I really don’t have any words, or maybe I just can’t find the right ones to use. Two more shootings. More lives lost. More political rhetoric. It is all so tragic, incomprehensible, and exhausting. Please know that I am in no way making any kind of political statement by writing about the state of our nation and world. I just couldn’t write about anything else. It would seem insensitive.
I’ll never forget where I was on April 20, 1999. The day of the Columbine school shooting. I was serving on a jury in Rusk County. It was a civil case, and we were actually in the jury room deliberating. I think I had a cell phone then, but can’t really remember. If I did, it was only used for emergencies. I happened to be serving on the jury with a friend I knew from Sunday School when we first moved back to east Texas. She made a call to her husband, and he informed her that there had been a horrific school shooting in Colorado. We were both educators, so this slammed us in all sorts of ways.
When I got in my car and started driving home, I listened to the radio and the news was everywhere. I was in shock. Numb. I couldn’t believe something this terrible could happen. And I couldn’t believe it could happen at a high school. I was a high school teacher. Columbine hit very close to home to me for that reason–and I was born in Colorado (Lakewood, which is in Jefferson County and 10 miles from where the massacre occurred).
The first question that came to mind as I was driving in that highway hypnosis kind of way, relying on instincts while my mind raced, was “What do I tell my children?” Do I mention this at all? (Christopher was in 3rd grade and Charles was in Kindergarten). I decided that we wouldn’t have the tv on at all (we had just sold our house and were in a rent house while we waited to move into our new place). The rent house was very small, and I knew that if the tv was on anywhere in the house they could hear it.
Imagine my heartache, when the first thing Charles said to me as I came through the door was, “I’m scared. I don’t want to go back to school. There are mean people there.” I have absolutely no idea how he heard about what happened. Maybe he overheard some teachers whispering about it, or maybe something was mentioned in his car-pool that afternoon. I wasn’t prepared for this conversation, and it was nauseating that I had to even go near such an unthinkable topic.
I’m sure I wasn’t nearly as eloquent or comforting as Mr. Rogers, but I basically said the same thing that he said: there are always good people who will protect you and keep you safe.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Fred Rogers
My 6 year old son was afraid to go back to school, and I couldn’t blame him at all. And I was terrified of the world that my kids would now be living in because after Columbine, everything changed. That sense of innocence was gone. The idea of being safe at school wasn’t real anymore. And we began looking at every student who ever wore a trench coat in a different way.
Last year, when I was speaking to a group of 7th graders about kindness, I asked if any of them knew why the flag was at half-staff (and as I write this, I honestly can’t remember where the shooting occurred that called for the flag flying in this manner). In a classroom full of 13 year olds, none of them knew that’s why the flag was flying in that way. I think one or two knew there had been a shooting somewhere, but they were basically unaware and unconcerned. Numb. Indifferent. Routine. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
In their lifetime, “shelter in place,” intruder drills, and lockdowns had become as common as the disaster drills of my generation. This most gut-wrenching thing about this is, it’s not something new to them. It isn’t something that is at all shocking. A common reaction is, “Oh, yeah. Someone shot a bunch of people.” Again.
As I write this, again, I don’t want to talk about all the ways this will be politicized on both sides. I want to talk about what I can do, and what you can do, and what everyone in our state, and nation and world can do. And I promise you, I really don’t know where to begin, except at the most basic level. We need to spend time with, and invest in our children. I’m in no way condemning or criticizing anyone, and I’m certainly not going to act like an authority on child-rearing. I was completely guilty of putting a “Barney” video on as entertainment for the kids so I could get stuff done (and after doing that once or twice, I quickly found ANYTHING but Barney to show them.)
As a society, we need to put the phones down, and talk to our kids. Every single day. We need to ask about their day, and not in questions that can be answered with “yes or no.” We need to have conversations and engage them in a dialogue. Every. Single. Day. This doesn’t take a lot of time. Having that conversation on the way home from school, or when they get off the bus, takes only a few minutes, but in that time, you can learn so much about your child, and show them how much you care for them and love them. Look for signs. Understand when a kid says his “stomach hurts” many times that means he/she is stressed. Talk to your kids. Talk to their teachers. Seek help. There are endless resources. As schools, we need to be less intimidating and more welcoming. Many times parents are insecure and don’t know what to ask or what to say. We need to be inclusive and non-judgmental. Schools can’t fix all the ills of society, but when we partner with parents, and the community full of helpers, we become stronger.
I emphatically preach to students that education is the way out. If you don’t like where you are, and you want to one day have more control over your destiny, being educated is key. We all need to preach that every single day. Parents, grandparents, teachers, employers. We need to unite and support and encourage.
And we need to be aware, and concerned, and participate. We need to speak out when there is injustice, we need to protect those who can’t protect themselves, and we need to help those who need help. And please don’t make this political….I’m simply talking about basic things. Contribute and give to charities, and donate clothing and food, and just be there to listen. Volunteer to read to children, or give them books, or help with after-school programs. Investments don’t have to be monetary. Time is the greatest investment of all.
Sadly, I have become a slacker. I rarely listen to the news. I try to hide in a cocoon so I don’t have to hear all the negative things that are said daily. It stresses me out, and I become angry on all sorts of levels. But being numb or being apathetic isn’t the solution. I need to “be the change” I want to see in the world.
I’ve said a lot, and I’ve said nothing. Look into your heart, and find a way to make a difference. People are battling with oppression, and depression. People struggle every day to have their most basic needs met. It’s unfathomable when you look at the big picture, so just look at your corner of the world and see what needs fixing. A great example of help that is trending right now, is anonymous donors funding supplies for teachers’ classrooms through Amazon. That’s awesome. And it will not only help that teacher, but will help every student who walks through the doors of his or her classroom.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Be the helper that Mr. Rogers spoke of. I think if we all devote time each day to help someone, whether it’s just to listen, or to nourish someone with food, or good deeds, or the word of God, not only will we help change lives, but we will be more joyful too. Take time each day to do a kind deed for someone else. It just takes a moment to plant a seed, to invest in the future, to make a difference. It costs nothing, and we can all do it. By being kind and loving others, we are changing our world. We can’t stop the random acts of hatred that occur, but we can make our corner of the world a better place, a safer place, and a kinder place. Rachel Scott, a victim of the Columbine shooting, wrote in her diary, ” “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”
I realize this seems simplistic, and in the big scheme of things, people may say it won’t matter. But I guarantee, the kindness you give to someone else will definitely matter to them.
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” ~Anne Frank
And when you can’t find the words, maybe it’s time to just listen. Word of God speak…