Feeling Safe

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rogers

This post has been suspended in draft form for six months now, since the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut killed twenty children and six adults. For several weeks after the shooting, I tried to put into words a few of my thoughts and emotions as an educator and human being. My words fell far short. My emotions were too raw, perhaps, and my thoughts too muddled in light of the events. Others far more articulate than myself expressed ideas and theories and insights more sophisticated and meaningful than anything I might have contributed. So instead I listened and watched and tried my best to process these terrible events in some way that might prove meaningful. What could be learned? How do we move forward?

As an educator and caregiver, when I first hear about shootings in schools and public places, a slideshow plays in mind of all the children I know and have known. All the children that I have dedicated my life to keeping safe, in every way possible.

I started working in an elementary school on the east coast one week after September 11, 2001. It was my first time working with kindergartners — one of the most inquisitive, insightful, and sensitive groups of young people you’ll ever find. In my experience, one of the things that is most challenging about being a young child is that you are acutely aware of everything that happens in the world around you. You feel it and internalize it all, without filter and without context. The younger the child you happen to be, the less likely it is that things will be explained to you in any satisfactory way. So you’ll live your young life soaking in the stress and upset and fear of the adults around you without ever fully understanding the who, what, or why of the feelings. Without perhaps even being able to name the feelings. By the time you’re five, six, seven years old, your antenna will be buzzing to catch the bits of meaning that circle around, just out of reach. You’ll hear things like “bombs”, and “guns”, and “dead”, and “children”, and “teachers”, and you’ll know that same deep sense of dread and sorrow that the adults carry in light of these tragedies.

I remember one of our lockdown drills, in that school. We were in the basement, my little group, and we were to go into a large closet. We gathered the children around us on the floor, the one small window covered with dark paper, lights off. Two children held my hands, their palms sweating and their breathing rapid. “We would come in here if someone had a gun outside,” one child whispered. “Someone has a gun outside?” another spoke with tears in their voice. “We’re safe,” I said, “We’re practicing so that we always know how to stay safe. We stay together. We stay quiet. We are all okay.” On other days, we talked about the things that make us feel safe: hugs and blankets and night lights and familiar stories.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, just as after the events in Newtown six months ago, people who work with children were briefed on how to talk with them about what happened. In 2001, the program that I was working in received assistance from the elementary school psychologist. There are guides available for parents, for teachers, for school counselors on things to watch and listen for, and certain words to say. There is value to this information and one of the very best things about the Internet and media in general, I think, is that this information is readily available to families and caregivers who can truly benefit from it.

After September 11, I had a hard time turning away from the media because there was a certain comfort in it. It made the world seem smaller and closer and united, in some way, to be able to tune in any time and find tired, concerned-looking reporters and experts talking about the very thing that was foremost in my own mind. I spent days on my living room floor in front of the TV with a box of tissues. Some part of me thought that absorbing enough information about what had happened would help me to make sense of it. I wasn’t alone in that, but it doesn’t really work that way. What really happened is that I became so worried that if I looked away I would miss something (that something else would happen) that I couldn’t blink.

When the Newtown shooting happened, I was on the east coast again, visiting my family for the holidays. I had learned enough about my own response to tragedy back in 2001 that I watched and read just enough news to know what had happened and to grieve with and for that community, but not so much that I was entirely immersed. I couldn’t be. When I returned to work in California, I found a magazine in our staff room that shared the stories of each family in Connecticut that had lost a loved one, and who that precious person had been to them and to the community. I didn’t pick it up. When one of my co-workers, with tears in her eyes, started to share what she had read in the article, I had to ask her to stop. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I just can’t bear it.” Whether it’s right or wrong, I know that to keep going in this world of guns and bombs and victims and families, I have to keep myself safe and sane. I work with infants, the most sensitive barometers of human emotion. If I absorb too much of that fear and sorrow and despair, without a filter, I fill them up with it as well. One thing I know for certain is that that does not help to keep us safe.

When the Boston Marathon bombing occurred in April (and I was again back home, having flown in to surprise my mom on her 60th birthday, immersed in the local media) and the suspects were identified and found, my first thought on seeing the photograph of nineteen year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was, “He was, once upon a time, someone’s baby. What happened to him?” How do we create from children the shooters and bombers?

There are no easy answers to questions raised by tragic events like these, but if there is anything of value that I have learned, it’s that our responsibility as the grown-ups in this sometimes chaotic, dangerous world, is to make our children feel safe and cared for so that they can evolve into resilient, reasonable adults. Brain science tells us that people who don’t have a feeling of safety and love in childhood can become adults who lash out. In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, friends of mine told their seven-year-old daughter to “RUN!” if she was on the schoolyard and heard gunshots. “You run. You run away as fast and as far as you can, and you hide.” This response, from scared parents to scared children, was not entirely uncommon. When they told me about it, as we discussed the tragedy in hushed voices one night, I wondered aloud, “How would she know what gunshots sound like?” There are thousands upon thousands of children in the world who are keenly aware of what gunshots sound like, and they do know to run and to hide. They have to. However, in our small corner of the world, that has not yet become a necessary survival skill. Should it? I am idealistic enough to think not. Instead, after reflecting on it all further, following an “Active Shooter Training” that was mandatory for all staff in the district where I teach, I came to the following conclusion: one of the best ways to keep our children safe is to prepare them to follow directions when necessary. The same is true for adults.

Think about being on an airplane. Before you’re in the air, the flight attendants ask for your attention and brief you on certain safety procedures. Should the worst happen, they’ll remind you of what they have instructed you to do and most of you will go ahead and do it. When things get scary, quickly, we almost always look for guidance. When things get scary, children look for a trusted adult. Many times, things get most chaotic when people don’t remember or don’t follow the procedures that were in place (for example, in case of fire you must proceed to the nearest exit, which you should have identified as soon as you took your seat in the movie theater, not when the alarm sounds in the middle of the movie, right?). One of the things being practiced by our preschoolers, just as we practice for fire emergencies and we practice for earthquakes, is hiding when instructed. “Bunny in the hole!” the teacher calls, and the children know it is time to get quiet like a bunny and hide. It is a little bit of a game, but it’s also serious and the children know because they have been shown. Will this keep them safe, should the worst happen? None of us can ever say for sure.

To keep our children safe in group settings like schools, one of the things that we need to take responsibility for is reminding them that they need to look for guidance in certain situations. As a teacher, I need the children to know to look to me. To listen to my instructions. I am not the kind of teacher to expect straight, quiet lines on an ordinary day, but in an emergency I do want all eyes on me and my students have always known it. I want the children to know that I will be trusted to keep them safe. The children of Newtown knew to expect this of their teachers and that is precisely what kept so many safe on that terrible day. That is a very real thing that parents can do for their children, at home and at school or in any gathering place. Model how to look for and understand posted safety signs. Set expectations of listening to and following directions. Model how to help others do the same. When tragedies happen, talk about what happened and what we could do to be as safe as possible in the same situation. Make a point of showing the “helpers” and the trusted adults (share the stories of the teachers who kept their children safe and the children who helped one another and followed directions).

We can never truly be prepared for events like the Newtown shooting. I don’t know what I would really do in a moment like that, as a teacher. I can’t even imagine and I fervently hope that I will never know. One thing that I have come to believe is that sometimes it is best not to “prepare”. I could go through every day thinking about the possibility of a shooter arriving outside my classroom door and, in doing so, I would put the infants and toddlers in my care at great risk through exposing them to that kind of toxic stress, fear, and paranoia. Instead, I take what reasonable precautions I can by staying alert and aware and conscious of things like how many children are in my care at all times, where they are at all times, where the nearest exits and hiding spots are at all times, and having a cell phone, a walkie talkie, and sensible shoes on my person. I would, without question, take a bullet for any of the children in my care. In fact, I would take a bullet for any child, period. But my goal as a human being in this mixed up world is to keep myself and my loved ones safe by staying connected to what is reasonable (it is reasonable for me as a caregiver, for example, to fill my pockets with tissues and leaves and rocks and little treasures instead of a gun).

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