By fifth grade, I was a good little worrier. I say that because, at ten, I scanned the church library, a five-by-five corner in the back of the chapel, to find this book about a girl who professed her faith in God before being gunned down in another library across the country.
I can’t be sure, but at the time I was somewhere between grasping the idea of cancer hitting home and not yet learning that tragedy could hug a nation. And so I saw the front cover, a smiling blonde girl who said yes—to what, I wasn’t sure—and I wanted to know her.
Reading that book was like clutching onto an airport terminal goodbye—I didn’t want to put it down, now that I had learned Columbine’s nasty face, but it hurt more to hold on.
That year and the year that followed, I grew sure only in the idea that we might not live to see another day. There might have been dozen of bomb threats in my intermediate, then middle, schools. We walked with ducked heads across the street to the high school auditorium. Every time. And there were many times.
Before 9-11, I knew what it meant to worry about the gaping hole between this-is-not-a-drill and some-kid-wanted-to-get-out-of-a-test-and-wrote-empty-promises-on-bathroom-stall-walls.
In high school, we lined up with our books in our hands, no bags allowed, as we entered the building one by one, our teachers patting us down and searching us like TSA officers. We sat in the gymnasium for countless hours. Every time someone threatened to tear into the building with a gun, we waited with lips pursed and said a prayer that it was just another silly little lie.
The last time it happened, I was in the cafeteria. The alarms went off and everyone ran—panicked, already watching the way the world was shifting from once-in-a-while tragedy to everyday possibilities that we might not always be safe.
We just didn’t believe it. Even standing in the cold in mid-December for half an afternoon, we didn’t believe that people out there with far less practice runs, far less birthdays, could see the other side of that gaping hole.
But they did.
I may never know what it feels like to have every single one of those moments become more than just a wasted afternoon, a precaution, six years of waiting for the all clear. I hope children, precious little children, never learn tragedy like that again. That the closest they come is walking into a church library and devouring a paperback with a smiling blonde on the cover.
There are things we owe children: their innocence, their time, their tomorrows. We will have to return to our own youth, maybe, to play Make Believe and pretend those are still possibilities. Because they aren’t. They aren’t anymore.
They become the things we might not always have: birthdays, graduations, driver’s licenses, jobs, parents and children, bedroom sharers and twin brothers.