Mothering in a country with the highest rate of school shootings

Having three children at a Montessori school in Boulder, Colorado, I endure an onslaught of parent meetings. They tend to drag on. I squirm in my seat and I’m reminded of how hard school was for me. I struggle to focus on the principal talking about her background as an educator. At the end of these talks, parents ask questions like: Should I unwrap packaged snacks before packing them in the lunchbox? (Yes, halfway). Time moves slowly. I am a good mother, I tell myself. I am, I am. Sam I am, as I lean back on the back two legs of my chair and balance.

Last night I tricked Mike, my husband, into coming to one of the meetings. I told him it was important to show the school that both parents were invested. It was fun  sitting next to him in the child-sized chairs, our knees awkwardly folded in front of us, so many grown-ups in a circle like kindergartners or alcoholics. To kick off the meeting, parents were invited to introduce themselves and share something “funny or unique” about their toddler. I love hearing how alike we all are; basking in the little nonsensical things our kids do. One woman shares that her little girl is obsessed with mannequins and asks to visit them at REI. We all sit there drunk on how much we love these tiny people who live in our house and reign terror on us.

As the last mom introduces herself and shares a tidbit about her son, her husband puts his hand on her knee, and for a split second I have a sick, gut-splitting premonition where I imagine that we are all in a support group for parents who have lost their children to a school shooting. I imagine the story being told in the past tense, “what was unique or funny about my child was that he always used to.” I feel panic rising in my chest. I shift in my seat, letting out a fake cough. Suddenly, the classroom looks wrong, so many moms and dads without their kids.

I try to stop from spiraling but the conversations around leaving stuffies at home and sending extra socks to school do little to settle my nerves. There were 346 school shootings in the United States last year. The US outranks all other countries with its number of school shootings per year. There isn’t a comparative phrase in most other languages for “school shooting”–this danger is inherently American. Here, a child is more at risk of dying from gun violence than through any other means. 

We’ve accepted this as a reasonable risk intrinsic to sending our children to school; like Covid. Covid used to be scary to me, and no longer is. These days I get an email from school that a child in my kid’s class has tested positive for Covid and I delete it, just like all the spam I get from Bed, Bath and Beyond. 

Later that night, I’m walking to sushi with Mike. We’re both in a good mood, to have one night free of the bath and bedtime routine that our babysitter is facing down. I want to tell him about my scary moment where it was as though someone had cut the power in the room; how everything went dark and morphed into a support group for parents of slain children. But I don’t want to kill the mood, and he often gets frustrated when I get overly paranoid and try to bring him with me. Every night before I close the curtains to my kids’ bedroom, I check their windows are locked as I picture JonBenét Ramsey’s heart-shaped face. But I never mention that to him when I crawl into bed.

“You know what I wanted to ask?” he says, our hands interlocking. “I wanted to ask about their policies around school shootings. Not the locked gate and alarm system, I want to know what happens once those are breached. Do they have drills? Can we do the drills? I want the drills.” I imagine how our sweet and demure preschool teacher might have responded to these questions. I try to picture how she would handle so many children scattering in different directions like leaves in the wind.

Lately, I’m struggling to cope with the anxiety of it. I fantasize about moving to another country altogether. I don’t feel special and I don’t think it won’t happen to my family. At any given time, I drop my son off at school and go about my day holding my breath, feeling like a mother who has sent her beautiful boy off to war, always somehow listening for a knock at the front door, both officers pulling their hat in their hands as she opens slowly. 

A few years ago, a mile from our house, a gunman opened fire in a grocery store. That evening during the press conference, the police chief kept delaying the time of the news conference. Cameras sat rolling on an empty microphone. I heard reporters speculate that they can’t announce the body count until all of the victim’s families had been contacted. “Must be a high count,” one reporter said. The news conference was pushed back again. Ten people had been killed while filling their carts with bread and milk. One dad was shot in the back as he ran towards the parking lot.

I’m thinking of that shooting this morning as I pack lunch. Today’s lunch boxes have a lot of little compartments. I put blackberries in one, even though I know that they will come home at the end of the day soggy and untouched. I pop one in my mouth. I open up the String Cheese, just as we were advised to last night. I open it just enough so that my toddler will be able to grab both sides of the plastic and finish unwrapping it, independently. I know that if he can’t open it, his teacher will help him. I close the lid, slip it in his backpack and hope he comes back home.

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