Friday, October 16, 2015

Brave New World

One of the wonderful things about school is that children are exposed to new ideas and people and have the opportunity to explore things they might not otherwise have the chance to at home. Since the beginning of the school year Sidney has been coming home talking about the new friends he is making, what he is learning and the fun he is having in the process. It is topics like this that make me feel good as a parent. On the flip side your child may be coming home talking about subjects that in one way or another challenge you as a parent. These subject aren't necessarily topics you don't want to discuss with your child; rather they are ones that you were hoping you wouldn't have to discuss for a while. This may be due in part to your thinking your child isn't ready to discuss them or, as is my case, I haven't figured out how to discuss them myself with my child. And as we have entered into the wide world of first grade, these conversations are happening with increasing frequency.

First there was the conversation about cancer and dying. Our family has been fortunate to have escape ravages of both during Sidney's short life so quite simply the topics have never come up. But as Sidney's school was preparing for their annual Terry Fox Run to benefit Canadian cancer research, he became a student on the subject and began asking lots of questions. What is cancer? What is dying? What happens when you die? I was pushed completely out of my comfort zone as I struggled to answer these questions in an age appropriate manner but coupled with what he was learning in school, I think I did alright. And it was just preparation for the conversation that came next: lock down drills.

Yes, lock down drills. Those unfortunately necessary yet complete scary practices that have been as commonplace as fire drills in schools across the western world. They didn't exist when I was in school. I remember being scared out of my wits the first time my class had a fire drill when I was in first grade. I had no idea what to do when the loud alarm sounded but I quickly learned what I was supposed to do. At the time we were living in a rural community in northern Vermont and the first grade (but not the second and third) was attached to the larger high school. Our biggest threat was a spate of bomb threats called in over the course of several months by teenage pranksters wanting to get out of taking their exams. When the alarm sounded we would file out of the school only to be allowed to return soon after. But times have changed since the 1970s..........

Lockdown drills have replaced the fire drills of my childhood. In this age of what feels like weekly school shootings, knowing how to react during an emergency can mean the difference between surviving and not. Thus the reason we have five year olds quietly cramming themselves into closets and bathroom stalls and sitting patiently until the all clear alarm sounds. They emerge safe if not a bit shaken but then the real questions arise.

Sidney's little school has already rehearsed two lock down drills during the first two months of the school year. Parents were notified about the impending drills prior to their taking place. And prior to each drill the teachers worked with the students so that they know what is expected of them during the drill. I wasn't in the classroom but I have full confidence that they presented the drills in an age appropriate and sensitive manner. But because of the sheer nature of the exercise how could a child (or adult for that matter) emerge from the practice not feeling a little shaken? I know that on the afternoon of each drill my little first first grader came home telling me what had happened before launching into a whole series of questions that yet again started a conversation I had naively hoped to delay having for some time.

He wants to know why bad men (as he calls them) would want to hurt the kids at this school. He wants to know if it is even safe to go to school and what he should do if they bad guys come when the kids are on the playground. He wants to know if they will also come after the parents and if the teachers are being brave and protecting their students whether they will be safe. These are all thoughts and questions that keep adults up at night and certainly aren't ones that a six year old should be pondering. But they are.

So how do you answer all of these questions yet explain to a child that while going to school is safe, someday the drill he is practicing might be for real? All I can do is explain that his teachers' jobs are to keep the students safe. No matter how scared he might be he needs to focus on what they tell him to do and to obey the rules. I assure him that that his parents will be safe. And for the moment, his going to school on a secure military base is probably the safest place for him to be. He understands that everyone must show a base issued identification card to enter the compound and early on when he questioned its purpose I assured him that it was to keep the bad people out. After the first drill these answers mollified him but after the second drill he asked what would happen if the bad guys skipped the main gate and dropped onto the base from the air like paratroopers (....he really is a military kid......). All I could do was reassure him that his teachers would take care of him and that everyone wants to make sure that all of the kids are safe.

And for the moment these answers have to be enough because they are all I have. The reality is that I can't promise him that his school will always be safe, that his teachers will always be able to protect him and that the bad guys won't descend upon his school. But I can promise him that the adults in his life will always do the best we can to keep him safe, that there are more good people than bad people in the world and that good does overcome bad any day of the week.

I believe that we can't live in fear of the what if and instead must focus on the here and now. And with that I'm going to give my little boy an extra hug and spend time focusing on the fun and (remaining) innocence of childhood.