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I wish I could feel as safe sending my kids to school as I did at Safety Town | #schoolsaftey


I remember sitting inside a trailer in a parking lot with a bunch of other kindergartners. The trailer started to fill with smoke, at which point an alarm went off. We dropped to the ground, crawled in a line to the open window at the front of the trailer and climbed out into a firefighter’s waiting arms. I’m pretty sure we got a piece of candy.

This was part of Safety Town training in the suburb where I grew up outside Cleveland. Other events were less momentous, including learning to walk inside a crosswalk and sitting against a wall during a mock tornado drill.

I credit Safety Town with important lessons. When a man asked me and the other elementary school girls that I was walking home with if we needed a ride home, the answer was an easy, “Oh hell no.” We’d seen that movie at Safety Town.

When my apartment caught fire in Washington, D.C., two decades later, sending me to the hospital and my roommates to a hotel for a month, I was cool as a cucumber. Moments before I’d be strapped to a stretcher still wearing my thermal pajamas and holding my stuffed bear from childhood (I always wondered what I would take in case of a fire; I left the laptop and Bible), a fireman joked about giving me a badge for keeping the fire from spreading. Thanks man, but I already have one from Safety Town.

The whole Safety Town thing was kind of terrifying. But those were simpler days.

It was with deep sadness that I learned clear backpacks are required in Dallas ISD elementary schools this year. (So much for the L.L. Bean backpacks that I planned to amortize over eight years.) You know why, of course. Thirty years ago when I was practicing stop, drop and roll, it would have been the furthest thing from most parents’ minds. Not any more.

This doesn’t seem like a very effective strategy. It feels unconnected to recent attacks at schools, which have come from outside the campus. It also seems easy to get around. Then again, maybe on balance, it reduces more parents’ anxiety or makes someone think twice about packing a bad thing, so it may be worth it.

My purpose here is not about efficacy or recommending a policy change. It’s to express, as many parents have before and will continue to after me, the deep weight and heavy sadness of raising children in a generation with historic gun violence.

In simpler times, my parents drilled hiding under desks for Soviet atomic bombs (another questionable strategy), but thankfully, they never fell. Our kids know gun violence happens in real life. My 8-year-old and 5-year-old, whom I adore, will ask why they have these backpacks as I’m moving over their Lego, cactus and shark keychains. I’ll say something that’s true but not the whole truth. But kids talk.

Something about the clear backpacks is an everyday reminder that the threat could be anywhere. It’s not those Cold War soldiers; it’s us, it’s each other. That is heavy and dark in a new way for our country and those raising families in it.

This year, Pew Research Center did a survey called Parenting in America Today. Mental health topped the list of concerns, affecting all but a small sliver of parents. Nearly half of parents were extremely to somewhat worried about their child being shot.

Here’s what really gets me: That with some basic knowledge, you can act smartly with stranger danger. That if the Texas-sized tornadoes really get to you, as they do to me, you can in theory live somewhere else. But the atomization, the violence among young men in particular, in our culture feels uncontainable, unsolvable outside of some type of spiritual revival wherein our thinned social threads are rewoven thick, where people who are deeply unwell have access to health care, when guns and especially the worst ones are harder to come by (we could do this!), where the genie unlocked in Columbine goes back into its bottle and is thrown into the bottom of the sea.

There are other things that feel out of control, of course: illness, the climate, polarization, poverty. But there’s something about this one — the person-on-person violence — that feels so acute, so unnecessarily horrible, the risk of it so tragically and casually on display in kids’ back-to-school supplies.

My husband, despite no Safety Town training of his own, is more calm and rational about such things. There are statistics, fate, faith. I get that. But there’s also grief. Grief is what I so appreciated about Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren’s new book, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. Warren draws on old prayers to give words to heaviness in our hearts when our own words run out.

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep,” that old evening compline reads from the Book of Common Prayer. Nighttime is an actual time of day, but also illustrative of periods of darkness, anxiety, helplessness, like how I’ll feel packing a turkey sandwich into a clear backpack. Warren reminds us that, mysteriously, the Lord doesn’t shy away from our vulnerability and fears but joins us in them. There aren’t too many gods who do that. It’s a salve, but it still burns, and I think that’s probably biblical too.

I felt invincible in Safety Town. I wish I could feel that way again.

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