On April 20th, 1999, I was a freshman at Duquesne University. Every door in the girls’ wing of St. Ann’s dormitory was outfitted with a dry erase board. A place to leave messages for roommates or friends, the boards that day were filled with gleeful expressions about 4-20, the international pot smoking time for a full day. That morning, the shared birthday of Adolf Hitler and my future father-in-law, I groaned inwardly. I was never a 4:20 kind of girl.
By the time I returned to the dorm that evening, the news of Columbine was upon us. Two thoughts swirled in my mind: I was glad I wasn’t in high school anymore and boy, those dry erase boards now seemed doubly inappropriate.
College rolled on followed by a full-time job, marriage, and an apartment. Shootings happened in movie theaters, schools, and colleges, but that was just background noise in the midst of the fast-paced change of my young adulthood. Our daughter was born and I lost a few years to mental illness and its aftermath. By December of 2012, my only child was seven and a half years old. She was the same age as the child victims of the Sandy Hook massacre.
I didn’t tell her about it and I was never planning on it. What gain is there in telling your second grader that someone went and killed a bunch of boys and girls just like her? I was sitting in the back of the sanctuary on the Saturday after the shooting. My daughter and the rest of our church youth on risers in the front. They were practicing for our Christmas pageant as those Connecticut families were planning funerals. The contrast was palpable. Another parishioner stood just before the practice ended, “if you need to talk to someone about the shooting, please come to me,” she said. “Find an adult in the church.”
Her words became distant, lost in my internal monologue. How dare that woman be the one to tell my baby about that shooting? How dare she take away her feeling of safety? She was doing what she thought was right, but I would have done anything to spare those kids from that knowledge.
Sandy Hook was immediately followed by a host of changes to security in our local school district. Parents were shunned from the classroom. No longer could you have lunch with your elementary student. Parent-involved events were restricted to the quarterly holiday celebrations. The ill-equipped buildings were re-configured to keep adults away from the students. The doors were locked, and an ID scanning entry installed that required any visitor to be buzzed into the school.
And even after Sandy Hook, we were able to return to normal life.
An embarrassment of mass shootings followed. Sometimes I cried and felt outraged, but that passed. The false sense of security here in “real America” is strong. Things like that don’t happen in our township. Those big shootings are only a problem in big cities. Our community just wouldn’t allow it.
Of course, these are all lies. They are the lies we tell ourselves to avoid the hard work of change. They’re our protection from hard choices. Most of all, they’re the only way we can put our children on buses every day. We must maintain the lie that their schools are safe, otherwise, how could we ever send them there?
The day after the Parkland tragedy, it was obvious that the Florida community was going to take the national spotlight and use it for good. My daughter and I saw a news story about the March for Our Lives. Now a seventh grader, she told me she wanted to go there.
March 24th fell smack dab in the middle of Presbyterian confirmation camp, a long-planned intensive faith weekend near the end of her confirmation journey. My insides churned as I told her that we couldn’t skip the church retreat, but I’d do my best to get us to a march.
As the event neared and more locations were added, our plan solidified. We would leave the confirmation camp and attend the March for our Lives at the Mercer County courthouse. She’d miss lunch and some of the fun camp activities, but we could get her there. She could participate.
It felt like a cop-out parenting move. I’d promised her an outlet for her own outrage which was by then growing by the day. One of her fellow seventh graders was suspended in February for threatening to bring a gun to school. That brought things close to home and by the time the school replaced the March 14th walkout with a “walk up” event, she was eager to do something to advocate for real action.
How could an event in Mercer, PA possible give her that? Further removed from Pittsburgh than our suburban home, Mercer County is filled with staunch conservatives. Democrats call the people there “folks that cling to guns and religion.” Trump calls them his base. I fully expected to show up at the courthouse at noon to find a few flower children cowering as the rest of the town battered them with rotten produce. There was a risk, but we made signs and went anyway.
The Mercer County event was an inspiration. A bunch of people gathered on the snow-covered grass in front of a stage outfitted with a large March for Our Lives banner. At the stroke of noon, a high school student took the stage to explain her involvement in the event, read the names of the Parkland shooting victims, observe a moment of silence, and introduce the remaining five speakers.
It was a powerful rally.
The high school students took the banner and led us on a march around the courthouse. They started chants. Protect your kids, not your guns. Enough is enough. All the while I thought: why didn't we do this in 1999?
My excuses aren't even worth the time it takes to make them. The only thing now is to do what should have been done long ago. March. Participate. Vote. Keep the spotlight on this issue until the guarantee of safe schools is no longer a lie. That people in places like Mercer County are thinking the same thing gives me great hope. Change is coming.