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January 12, 2019

How do I Explain to my 4-Year-Old that he’s Not Safe in School?

On June 28th of last year, I woke up just like any other day.

I got my son ready for school, gave him breakfast, and scurried to get us out the door in time for me to get to work. Like any other day, I made it to my office in time for my first round of patients.

But it wasn’t long after I got to work that I noticed I felt agitated. 

Specifically, I felt a marked sense of doom and dread about the predicament of the United States. I exchanged text messages with some friends of my parents who I respect, a married couple who are both immigrants, and I inquired about their opinions of our safety in the United States during this moment in history. I was curious about their thoughts on immigrating to another country, and they were very empathetic to my gloom. 

I launched into an actual investigation, researching what steps I might need to take in order to leave. It was an impulsive vision, though in the moment it felt prudent to cover my bases as this extemporaneous idea bubbled up to the surface like an unexpected volcanic eruption.

Where was this urgency coming from?

There have been a few instances in my life when such a random sense of dread I later realized was concurrent with a scary event in the world—and this day was no exception. 

At 3:30 in the afternoon, I first read a headline stating breaking news: “Mass Shooting at Annapolis’s Capital Gazette.” As I read the article, I realized it was less than a mile from my office.

There were deaths, but we didn’t know how many yet. I felt a lot of grief and sadness over the state of our country, as I had figured it was only a matter of time before one of these all too common shootings happened near me.

It may be nonsensical, but as I took in what was happening, the urgency behind my earlier sense of dread shifted. I didn’t feel unsafe simply by virtue of being in the United States any longer, even though this horrific event was unfolding within walking distance. My anxiety had quickly been replaced with apathy, or maybe even depression.

The shooter was captured, and we went about our day. I saw the rest of my patients, though a few needed to cancel due to road blockages because of the shooting. I continued to read the headlines as they came in, not imagining in my wildest dreams that one of the victims would be somebody I knew. But alas, that evening, as I got my son ready for bed, I glanced down at my phone to see that one of my friends had posted on Facebook that Wendi Winters could not be reached. Her post said something like, “It’s not looking good for our friend, guys. Nobody can reach her. Still waiting for some news.” 

Wendi was a member of our church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. I did not know Wendi well at all. In all honesty, I may have never even had a full conversation with her beyond the exchange of a sentence or two, but we both attended church weekly, and Wendi consistently stood post as the person who greets congregants as they enter the church. She would hand off a service schedule, her fiery red, curly hair always ablaze, with a kind and relaxed smile—just a simple turning up of her closed lips. 

That is the extent of what I knew of her. She was not a dear friend to me, not a colleague, and I doubt she even knew my name, as I was nowhere near as active in the church as she was. Wendi died that day in the shooting, and according to others present, she confronted the killer, likely saving the lives of many of her colleagues.

Though I did not know her well, Wendi’s death impacted my little family more than I would have expected. Obviously, our community was shaken to its core. Our reverend announced a vigil to be held at the church, and I felt unsettled by the violence and knew that I wanted to be there to support my community. 

I debated whether or not to bring my nearly four-year-old son, but it was announced that there would be childcare, so it seemed appropriate to do so, but I decided to have a conversation with him beforehand since I figured he might be confused by so many people crying. 

I wasn’t sure how this was going to go. How do you explain something so horrific to a four-year-old? Are there any parents who aren’t novices at such conversations? In an attempt to keep it simple, I explained to him that somebody we knew at church had gotten hurt and her body stopped working and we were going to church to be with people we knew to talk about all the wonderful things about her. He pressed me for more information; Why did her body stop working, mommy?” I didn’t want to ignore his questions, but I instantly felt sort of sick over having to think on the spot to explain something like this. “Well, somebody who was really angry did something really, really mean. You know how we talk about how it’s okay to be angry, but you have to get your anger out the right way? This person didn’t get their anger out the right way, and it got really, really big and then they made a really bad decision.” 

I was dismayed when he said, “And he shooted everybody?” Somehow, he just knew that was what had happened. Had he overheard it from somebody? Confounded, I replied, “Yes, honey,” and I paused for another moment and then added, “This is why guns are really scary; they can make somebody’s body stop working.”

We gathered as a congregation, and every seat in the house was taken. There was a row reserved in the back for media coverage. The air was thick and penetrated only by sniffling, an occasional sob, and I’d be damned if I said the sense of shock wasn’t audible as well—a churning that was thick and viscous. 

My son, who I was holding in my arms, gripped my shirt, and I sensed he was feeling anxious. I moved to take him downstairs to be with the other children, but he gripped me harder and told me he wanted to stay with me. I decided to let him sit with me and that I would make a move to take him to childcare if it seemed necessary. 

Beautiful stories were shared about Wendi, and while the air was dense, I listened to story after story about her candor, her involvement in all things, and her bravery. Though I never knew her well, I left with the notion that a giant had been taken from all of us, and I regretted that I had not taken the opportunity to get to know her better.

My little boy, now nearly four and a half, asks about guns. I recall Super Soaker fights as a child in my neighborhood, war paint smeared across our faces, a dozen or so kids scampering around an entire neighborhood, hiding behind trees, dashing from house to house as though our lives depended on it. It was great fun.

But times have changed, and my son is not allowed to play with toy guns, because we have an epidemic in our country and people are dying every single day because of it.

I don’t know how to tell my son that there are more people in this country who care about the ownership of firearms than they do about his safety. I don’t know how to explain to him that the data is undeniable and that we would be safer if we had gun control, but we choose over and over and over again not to instill it. 

We need gun control because we are now raising a generation of children for whom gun violence is normalized. At four years old, my son is aware that it is possible that anywhere we go in our normal, day-to-day lives, he could be shot, or I could be shot and he would be orphaned. He asks me regularly if I’m going to die, and I have to tell him assuredly that I’m not going anywhere and he’ll always have me, but my four-year-old has had his first experience with losing a member of his community to a mass shooting.

I recently read somebody’s argument, in which they stated that these things happen all over the world and it’s inevitable that it would happen here. They said that we were just privileged before not to have to experience the fear of domestic violence every day. They were right: we were absolutely privileged. Though it was not our privilege of avoiding domestic violence that should have been of concern; it was the privilege of living in a bubble and not sensing that this danger was around the corner that has always been our shortcoming. 

For as long as any of our lifetimes, parents in war-laden countries have had to have these hard conversations with their children. American parents mindlessly sending their little ones to safe schools was indeed a privilege, and, indeed, we should aspire to protect children everywhere. But the argument that it was merely a privilege and that, therefore, we are not worthy of living free from this violence caused me to pause. 

Maybe the adults don’t deserve it. Maybe we aren’t worthy. 

But our children deserve to be safe at school. I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

My son has done nothing to deserve carrying the brunt of our errors. And so I’m forced to ask the question, How long do we lie to them and tell them they are safe in school when everybody knows that’s a lie?

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