The first post of this blog on parenting, technology, and education was supposed to be a book review. But current events have swept aside such organized meditations and I am compelled to reflect on the moment.
On Friday morning I was in my kitchen in California talking to my sister in Connecticut as we have been doing daily, recently. It is just a year since our mother died, and this loss is still reverberating through our lives, the anniversary bringing the grief in sharper relief. This was the emotional backdrop to my week, and to this brief conversation. My sister said she would have to call me back because there was screaming in the school where she was doing a practicum. She needed to investigate.
Neither of us had been aware of the news that morning. I was on a crash diet from social media and limiting other news outlets until the evening. But as I hung up the phone, I began to imagine what that screaming could be. Sounds of gunfire ricocheted around my imagination, images of children choking with terror, teachers trying to engulf the fear with helpless arms. I felt fear for my sister’s safety. I could hear the calls for gun control in Congress and the defensive replies from the NRA that guns don’t kill, deranged people do. I texted my sister to please tell me the screaming was nothing. She wrote back instantly, “Goodness, no! Just a kid throwing a tantrum.” I exhaled and to calm my still rattled nerves, I decided to polish the surfaces of my various devices before settling back into studying. Lifting the lid of the iPad, a NYTimes alert appeared, “Mass shooting at Connecticut elementary school.” Thirty miles from my sister’s school where I had just vividly imagined such a tragedy (5o miles from my home town), an entire classroom of first-graders and their protectors were lying dead, riddled with the bullets of modern warfare from one disturbed young man.
If I had a spiritual bent, I might say my soul had some inkling that evil was afoot; that on some level far below conscious thought I knew what had happened. But since giving birth four times and burying two parents, and still with no discernible godly connection, I seek more pragmatic explanations when coincidence appears divine. The reason my brain invented a large-scale tragedy as one was taking place is that such an act is not unimaginable, it is plausible. Twenty years ago I probably would not have first thought of murder by assault weapon when the verb “to scream” was mentioned in the same sentence as the noun “school.” But every time we hear of another terrible event on our soil, from our people, it becomes an expected event in the national narrative. We have storms, elections, sporting events, and mass killings. Remember Oklahoma City, the Amish schoolhouse, Columbine, to name just a few.
All those events, as they shatter individual lives and families and permanently scar the psyches of those closest to the dead, become fodder for more death and more fear. The waves of grief become content for crime dramas, movies, statistical analysis, sociological studies. The news cycle devours these stories and regurgitates the details in a repetitive stream devoid of meaning. An attempt is made to make sense of the senseless, but mostly we resort to describing with breathless fascination HOW it all took place. And in this era of sharing, we jump on each other’s tweets and Facebook posts to say words of condolence, outrage, activism, or test the waters of humor and reveal our compassion fatigue. Some pose as perpetrators themselves and use the platform to wield more hatred.
There is simply too much contact, too much noise. The human side of this – the pain, loss, grief, love cannot be communicated through these channels. It is drowned out by the overwhelming power of the story’s existence- it happened. And by learning of it, another troubled person gets the idea to play it out in real time with new victims. Adam Lanza was a first grader in 1999 when two teenagers stormed Columbine and killed 13 people.
Normally I am a news junkie, but this week, I am indulging in quiet. I have not yet told my children, ages 8 through 11. Their last day of school before break was on Friday and if the teachers learned of the tragedy during the school day, they did not yet share it with the kids. I have kept the news off and the Sunday New York Times, with it’s black epitaph, was flipped over. I haven’t figured out how to tell them what happened.
They know about wars and 9-11. They have been to more funerals than weddings in their short lives. Death is not a secret. But for various reasons we do shield them from popular culture. We don’t allow video games. TV is nearly invisible, movies are a rare treat and the news comes via radio and newspaper. I take some heat for this from friends and family who think sheltering the children will keep them in a perpetual state of naiveté. And I am ambivalent about our restrictions at times. But this week I am grateful we have made this choice. It has given me the space and time to think. I am not worried that they will be distraught – I predict they will take the news in pleasant stride, as they live firmly in their own reality, untarnished by world-weary cynicism. I dread the telling because in that moment they will learn as so many children have learned this week, that a person in this country can buy weapons at will and murder a class of first-graders.
What a parent utters to their child is not drama, or fantasy, it’s the truth, as far as they know. This terrible news becomes a fact that will become tied to the many other facts they are compiling as they progress through childhood. I’ll try to explain how it’s not something to be feared, but a sadness to reckon with. I will say how rare and bizarre and horrible it is. And that will be that. In this moment of roiling national debate saturated in grief, I am grateful that T.V., YouTube, Facebook are not sharing this information with my kids – I am. Next year my son will be in middle school and this cocoon will be busted, I know. But for now, I appreciate the quiet and control I can briefly conjure. The barrage begins to numb and soon this news seems almost normal. And the greater tragedy in all of this, if there can be one, is that reality begets fantasy and fantasy begets reality. As we tell the story to our nation’s children, through every orifice of media technology, over and over, we make sure it will happen again. It’s not just the guns, or the mental state – it’s the shared imagination. This is plausible.