She clings to the green monkey bar on our backyard play set with her little fingers. The nail on her right index finger is an angry purple-blue. The scar from a lost battle with the small iron trap door in the ground by our mailbox that conceals our water meter, which is as endlessly fascinating to a 1-year-old as it is hazardous to appendages.
I stand below the bars, my hands resting on her hips. She presses the souls of her pink and black sneakers against my chest, smiles her heart-melting smile, and giggles as she pushes herself up. Her waist at bar level, leaning forward to peak over the fence into our neighbor’s yard, she probably feels like she’s flying. Her eyes dance as she drops herself back down, dangles for a moment, and presses her body against me for support. For safety.
Despite her precarious position, six feet above hard ground covered with only a thinning layer of red rubber mulch, she is safe simply because of the strength of my arms.
If only it were always that easy to keep our children safe.
The Valentine’s Day school shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., some 200 miles south of our backyard in Orlando, hit close to home. The Pulse nightclub shooting here two years ago obviously hit our local community hard, but Parkland was equally terrifying. Not because of proximity but because it was yet another incomprehensible incursion on the sanctity of our children’s schools.
I was moving back and forth under the monkey bars on that Valentine’s Day morning. Lifting my daughter up and helping her drop down softly onto the ground. We kept at it for what seemed like an hour. I learned to comply with her instructions even if I never fully understood them. It was a lovely morning.
A couple weeks prior, my oldest son, a kindergartener, told me he almost cried while hiding in the bathroom at school during a Code Red, or school shooting, drill. On Valentine’s Day, after school while we were playing outside, just after I learned about Parkland, we heard the elementary school intercom in the distance: an electronic beep, then a voice.
“We have to be quiet and listen when the announcement comes on,” my kindergartener said as we waited. “In case there’s a bad guy and they are calling a Code Red.”
He said it matter-of-factly. Like he was reading one of those very boring kindergarten reader books: I saw the dog. The dog ran. We have to listen in case a bad guy is coming to kill us.
I didn’t feel anything at that moment. Maybe a whisper of sadness or anger, but I was too spent to muster any strong feelings. It’s the subtlety that gets you. The little injustices start to pile up and before we know it, they are just an accepted part of our existence. We let them slide because it is easier to forget. We don’t want to think about what we are doing to our children because we are too cowardly or apathetic to take meaningful action. Instead, we continue to place the weight of everything onto their small shoulders as they crouch in a darkened school bathroom.
Later that night, after the kids were in bed, I sat on the couch next to my wife. We each scrolled through our phones, searching.
I read that the Florida state legislature was introducing legislation that would allow teachers to carry guns during school hours. If something like that were to become law, what would we do? Home school? Move? Out of state? Out of country?
This is what we think about now. Until we don’t. Until the news fades and the pressure of daily life washes away the immediate fear. We go numb. And we wait.
In the mornings, while my oldest two kids are at school, my daughter and I amble around our neighborhood. She pushes herself around haltingly on her red three-wheeled scooter, stopping frequently to drag it along behind her. Bump, bump, bump, the scooter goes along the asphalt street. I hope that bumping is the only sound I hear. I hope I don’t hear the ding of the school intercom in the distance. Or sirens. Or something worse. I think, “Could I hear gun shots from here, half a mile away, if the shooter was inside the building?”
We keep walking in the warm morning sun of early spring in Florida. A car turns into our quiet dead-end street. It heads toward us slowly. I move beside my daughter and her scooter and place my hand on her head to hold her in place until the car passes. To keep her safe.