“We had a lockdown drill today.”
From the back seat, she was relating the events from her school day – more specifically from the sixth grade – while I drove her home. I often wondered what percentage of the conversations between me and my youngest child – who had, quite literally, grown up in the car – had gone exactly like this: her speaking to the back of my head as I drove and swore and sometimes answered the phone, our scant eye contact made only by triangulating through the rear view mirror. She was tiny, so she couldn’t ride in the front, where we might have been able to see each other better; it was a worthwhile sacrifice, the price of safety. Still, I sometimes wondered if I missed some things without the direct eye contact, the ability to reach over and grab her hand. I sometimes wondered what the cost had been.
Sixth grade is middle school, which is aptly named; it is neither fish nor fowl, neither here nor there. It is squarely in the middle between childhood and adolescence. The middle school mom might drop off a cheery little girl who answers to her pet name and blows a kiss and, mere hours later, pick up a sullen stranger who, between fourth and fifth periods, agreed to be somebody’s girlfriend. So when I was lucky, when it was a chatty afternoon after middle school reminiscent of those happy younger years, I worked hard to soak it in, to keep up with the conversation. I pretended I could keep the Emmas and Mackensies straight and feigned a full grasp of the nuanced girl drama du jour. I secretly worked to recall the name – that I could never seem to remember – of that big field trip she was so excited to be taking in the spring.
Upon mention of the lockdown drill, I glanced in the rear view mirror. I was trying to check her expression, while keeping the back of my head still to hide my effort. Her delivery suggested that there was more. I tried to sound nonchalant. “And how was that?”
“Kinda scary,” she went on.”The triangle was the worst.”
The triangle? Two sentences into this conversation, I was already lost. The triangle?? I scanned my brain quickly as if it were a dictionary, searching for any applications of a triangle that could possibly be interpreted as scary.
Triangle (n.) Modern English. A figure with three sides, studied less than exhaustively in sixth grade math. A musical instrument which is perhaps the easiest and most fun to play, even by children as young as preschoolers. The oft-proclaimed favorite shape of the wildly uncontroversial and always mild-mannered Telly Monster on Sesame Street.
I was stumped. Neither of us said anything for a minute. When I looked in the rear view again, she was gazing out the window, and I couldn’t tell if she was just looking, or thinking wistfully, or if that was a deep sadness I saw behind her dark eyes. I suddenly wished I’d encouraged her to hop in the front seat, where I could have seen better, reached over to her; why hadn’t I? She was old enough now. I inhaled again, clearing my throat, hoping that a calm and knowing tone would hide my confusion. “Mm. Tell me about the triangle.”
She seemed surprised; it is so rare that the youngest stumps a mom, brings home anything new. “The triangle is, you know, when we have to line up on the wall between the classroom doors. And we stand tight against the wall in a big triangle. That way, if there was someone, you know, in the hall with a gun, and they looked through the window, they wouldn’t be able to see us. And then – she paused for emphasis – they wouldn’t be able to shoot us! Some of the teachers were in the hall, to look through the doors and check. To see if we were ok in the triangle.”
It was all I could do to not burst into tears. Five years later, it is all I can do now.
What does it mean for our children to be raised in a world where this kind of fear and violence has become routine? What does it do to an eleven year old to process such a thing, to learn real-world geometry by huddling behind an imaginary line of eyesight and worse, gun sight, while someone who signed up to teach children perhaps social studies, or music, tries to think like a madman? And what about the teachers, some of whom I know are technically grown up but might still be young, say like twenty-three, and also someone’s daughter, like let’s just say mine, who tirelessly shares with her third graders her love of science and of learning but now must also wonder if she would be clever enough to think to cover the window with black paper? If she could fit all of their tiny, unruly bodies safely in the closet behind her desk?
What does it mean for us parents who – busy trying to drive everyone and remember all the things and keep up with all the conversations – heard of a shooting at a high school in Kentucky and continued on with our days without much interruption, perhaps without actually talking about it with another person before the day was out? Who might – remembering Columbine, where a dozen mothers lost their just-past-middle-school teenagers, and Sandy Hook, where an entire classroom’s worth of six year olds, God help us, were lost forever to their mothers’ arms – have thought for a split second, thank God it wasn’t worse?
Another split second later, we shudder in shame. Those two mothers know better. And of course, so do we.
Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, both 15 years old, died Tuesday after being sent off in the morning to school. We can only imagine the shock, the interminable grief. Eighteen students are still hospitalized, their stunned mothers undoubtedly at their bedsides – including a young man with special needs who may need to have his arm amputated, and three students who remain in critical condition after having been shot in the heads their mothers’ hands smoothed so many times.
It’s getting hard to even remember the innocence we had before Columbine; it remains heartbreaking to remember the overwhelming loss of innocence at Sandy Hook. In the face of so much loss and anguish, it feels wrong to find yourself crying a little, remembering the relatively inconsequential loss of innocence that was, that one day when your daughter was in middle school, the triangle.
I don’t know the answers; I’m not even sure I understand the problem. Gun control, mental illness, community, school safety, culture – they all seem relevant, like they probably all somehow play a role. There’s so much we have to fix that it feels overwhelming, and divisive; there are so many loud and angry voices. Many have stopped talking about it; many more have stopped even listening. We accept all of it as routine, or worse, often don’t even stop to think at all. To remember.
If you’ve ever argued from the driver’s seat about something important with a teenager in the back, you know that sometimes you have to abandon the rear-view-mirror triangulation. Sometimes, you have to just pull the car over on the side of the road, and turn all the way around. Look them in the eye, even though it’s uncomfortable for you, because you still have your seat belt on, and it kind of hurts your neck to turn that far around, and for them because it just is, because in times like these, it easier to look out the window than meet your gaze. But you do it anyway, all parents do, even though no one has ever told you when to do this, and you couldn’t say how you know; you just know that you have to. You pull over and you turn around and you speak calmly and directly, because it’s important, because it matters that you get it right.
Sometimes things are too important for sideways glances. Sometimes, when you are a grownup, you know you need to stop and get uncomfortable. It’s time to look at things straight on, and tell the truth. The triangles, it turns out, are too costly.