Last night Sarah and I received an email from my second grade son’s elementary school. It was from his principal and it was about some sad news.
"I am sorry to share some difficult news this evening. We have learned that our physical education teacher unexpectedly died this afternoon of natural causes. [He] has been an important and valuable part of our school community, and we are all grieving this loss. Our hearts are with his family tonight. I wanted to make you aware tonight so you would have time to talk with your children. As our P.E. teacher, [he] knew all of our students and will be deeply missed. We will have the crisis team available for anyone who needs to visit with them tomorrow. Children react in individual ways when they experience loss of someone they knew. Things such as developmental level, relationship with the student, previous experiences of loss, and personal perceptions of death impact how each child copes with this sad news. As adults, we try to understand, and accept a variety of emotions and behaviors. The most important thing we do is to be supportive and encourage discussion about the news, our feelings, and what we can do in response to it. We encourage you as parents and caregivers to read over the following list of ways you can help your child."
The email then gave this list of suggestions to think through to help our children.
- Be available and willing to discuss the events and honestly share your feelings about them.
- Allow your child to express fears and feelings. Answer questions knowing that the questions may not come right away.
- Maintain your daily routines as it offers children a sense of security.
- Be present and watchful of your child in the days and weeks ahead. Watch for any changes in behavior. If you do notice changes, talk them over with a school counselor.
- Give assurances of love, support, and safety.
- Be patient. Children may express a variety of emotions within a short period of time.
As I read through the email I was distracted by the relevance of these suggestions for our entire country right now. After the recent mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, I think many of us are trying to process the information we are being told about the horrendous details of the massacre.
Before school this morning, I called Ezra into my bedroom and asked him to sit on my bed.
“Hey Ezra, I need to tell you some sad news.”
“Your PE teacher…”
“Your PE teacher died yesterday.”
“Oh, ok. How?”
“I’m not sure, but it was apparently sudden.”
“Ok. That’s sad.”
“Yeah, it is.”
He then got up and he walked out of the room, not seemingly changed too much by the news. I was a little surprised. He’s usually quite thoughtful and emotive.
But at this point, maybe his response shouldn’t surprise me. Ezra has lived in a world with death all around him. Almost a third of his life has been lived during a global pandemic. One million people have died from Covid-19 in this country alone in that time, and people have seemingly moved on from caring. Mass shootings in schools and supermarkets and places of worship happen regularly enough that they don’t stand out to him, perhaps they aren’t even noteworthy. They are just a part of what it means to live in America.
He practices active shooter drills at school. He didn’t finish his kindergarten year because of the pandemic. Masks have been a part of his life for the last two and a half years. He asks questions about the war in Ukraine from time to time.
“Why would they do that? Why would they bomb places where people live, people who aren’t even fighting?!”
Death is a part of his world in ways it was not for me. I was in sixth grade when the Columbine shooting happened. It was stunning and scary. I remember our teachers turning on the TV and seeing kids running in a line out of the school.
But there have been at least 554 victims of school shootings since Columbine. And during that time 311,000 children have been exposed to gun violence at school, via the Washington Post, which has an interesting (and very sobering) infographic on it.
But every student in America is in one way or another a victim of gun violence. Active shooter drills instill the possibility that someone could randomly come into their school and kill them. Kids practicing active shooter drills and kids that have experienced lock-downs due to the threat of violence live with a fear that they could die for no reason, shot by a crazed 20 year old with an AR-15 coming into their classroom.
We are failing our kids.
At Ezra’s eighth birthday party in March, half of the presents he received were toy guns of some sort. This made him sad because he knows that “In the Seaman family, we don’t believe in playing with guns.”
Any gun that was given to him was later returned to Target and exchanged for other sorts of toys. That’s hard for a kid to understand. Every one of his friends that are boys have guns of all kinds. Some have walls of nerf guns. It’s hard for him to go to a friend’s house and not be tempted to play with guns. It’s the go to thing to do. And I know it still happens from time to time. If it’s not a nerf gun, it’s a stick from the backyard. It’s what is not only expected from boys his age, it’s encouraged.
Today was the last day of school for Micah and Ezra. A half day. Yesterday was their sister’s last day of high school ever. So we decided that we’d go out as a family to celebrate when Micah and Ezra got home from school.
We went to one of our favorite pizza places, Mama’s Pizza.
When we got there we realized we were most definitely not the only family with this idea. The restaurant was filled with elementary school-aged kids and their families. We ordered pizza and sat down at one of the few tables left.
As we waited for our pizzas, Micah and Ezra went over to a small section of the restaurant that has a few arcade games and claw machines. There was a decent size group of kids there playing. As we waited for our pizzas I looked over and saw Ezra sitting in a chair watching a couple kids playing a Terminator game with two automatic assault rifles as their game controllers. It was buzzing continually as they were using them to shoot at the screen. Elementary school kids using automatic rifles to fight off robots and bad guys to keep themselves entertained as they waited for their pizza to come.
When I realized that Ezra was just sitting there watching, I told Sarah and she went over to have Ezra sit with us at the table to wait.
Right before our pizza came another family walked in, this time with a couple kids that looked older than the dozens of elementary-aged kids in the restaurant. I noticed one of the boys was wearing a hat with an American flag on it, an image of an assault rifle, most likely resembling the style of an AR-15, over the flag.
This was fairly jarring to me, and definitely to Sarah. It riled her up a bit, both with anger and with tears of heartbreak.
Seeing that hat, worn by a young teenage boy just a couple days after this country’s second-worst school shooting, made me say aloud, “This is America.”
Sarah motioned over to the sign hanging down over the counter where you order your food, under the neon “Moonshine Margarita” sign.
Mama’s is proud to be family friendly.
For the enjoyment and safety of everyone – we ask of the kids:
I couldn’t help but think of the kids running and screaming for their lives a couple days ago at Robb Elementary. Today was supposed to be those kids’ last day of school, too, but that day came two days early. And for nineteen of those fourth graders trapped in a room with the gunman, it was their last day of their lives.
A room full of people who have already moved passed the events of a couple days ago. We live in a world which perpetually thinks that despite the death and violence that surrounds us, it will never happen to us. It’s sad that it happens to other people, but at least it didn’t happen to us. And we move on.
Meanwhile we allow children to wear hats idolizing the murder weapon used in each one of these significant mass shootings:
Las Vegas: AR-15
Aurora, CO: AR-15
Sandy Hook: AR-15
Waffle House: AR-15
San Bernardino: AR-15
Poway synagogue: AR-15
Sutherland Springs: AR-15
Tree of Life Synagogue: AR-15
And what are we going to do to stop this? What are we going to expect of our elected “representatives?”
As I was eating, trying to simply enjoy my time with my family despite the sadness of the last couple days, I glanced over to the woman sitting next to us. She was reading the newspaper while enjoying a moonshine margarita.
“A decade of inaction in Washington”
What are we going to do? Surely we can’t just allow this to keep happening. Is this what we mean when we say “American Exceptionalism”? Do we really believe we live in the greatest country in the world? Because I hope to God it isn’t.