I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War, watching the Berlin wall fall down when I was ten. My mom told me stories about safety drills in the 1960s, when she and her classmates would hide under desks in the event of a nuclear attack. Fortunately this was not my reality, and I was able to blissfully continue on with my childhood as if big threats were a thing of the past.
Over the next 20 years, I watched national events chip away at my sense of security. The Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine, and 9-11 were just a few of the events that rattled my senses.
Then Sandy Hook happened. I was not only a classroom teacher witnessing the aftermath of six staff members dying as they tried to protect the little ones under their care—I was also a mother with small children watching parents grieving over the loss of 20 little ones with the same interests as my own babies. Suddenly I didn’t just have to be concerned about the begrudged high school student seeking revenge on his classmates and teachers. I had to be worried about random people who might choose to target my own small children. My heart broke as I held my children tightly and prayed that they would never experience that for themselves.
When I finally saw the news about the shooting in Parkland, it felt like a punch in the stomach. The next week, as I sat in my darkened classroom during yet another lock-down drill, my heart raced when our administrators hit the fire alarm, and I was reminded of the ruse that got more students into the hallways. For the last month, my sense of security has been once again shattered by the remote possibility that I may have to one day decide between my students’ safety and seeing my own babies grow up.
It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally come to the conclusion that safety is an illusion. Sure, we can do things to make us safer, but that doesn’t mean that the world isn’t a dangerous place. We live in an imperfect world and we are surrounded by imperfect people, including ourselves. Danger—whether other drivers on the road, a natural disaster, or a mad man with a weapon—is around every corner. For years my husband and I have occasionally played a ridiculous game of “what if” related to everything from a zombie apocalypse to the eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano. For the record, the current plan involves stocking up on propane and taking our travel trailer to the safest remote location.
We live with the reality that every moment of every day, we are at the mercy of the world around us. That is not a defeatist attitude, it is simply the truth. But how we choose to deal with that reality can change our world and the world of those around us.
It is time that we as a country have a serious discussion about the paradox that threatens our nation’s security and individual safety in ways that most developed nations do not have to deal with on a daily basis. We need to come to grips with the reality that any solutions to the safety issues facing our country will require some kind of sacrifice—in many cases this could involve individual freedoms or personal ethics.
As a teacher, I personally am very wary about increased security and armed teachers in and around school buildings. I believe it puts a Band-Aid solution on a much bigger problem. Instead, I believe that we need to be serious about a simultaneous, multifaceted approach to safety and the many problems that plague this nation and strip us of our security. We need to be wary of an approach that turns our nation into a series of checkpoints, fences, and armed guards. I don’t believe that most people in this country want to feel like they are entering a prison every time they go to school, the shopping mall, or a house of worship. Is this approach really in our best interest?
We also need to be honest about the fact that, in this country, there is great disparity in security. The teens in Parkland, Florida, kids who grew up behind security gates and professionally manicured lawns, discovered that their lives were no safer than the lives of the Chicago teens several of them met with in the weeks following the massacre at their school. But they were also humbled by the realization that they have peers in other parts of the country living very different realities. The Parkland teens lost friends in a single day, but there are teens all over the country for whom loss of life is an everyday occurrence. There are children who are not safe walking from the school bus to their homes. There are children who are not safe in their own homes, an issue not unique to a single demographic.
Finally, we need to work towards real community in our neighborhoods, churches, and schools. I’m not talking about forced neighborhood gatherings and name tags so that we can know everyone we come into contact with, but working together across socioeconomic and cultural barriers to find solutions to the problems that are unique to our own communities. When we know our neighbors by name and can trust them to watch out for us and they can trust us to watch out for them, suddenly we are all safer. Instead of hiding behind security gates and privacy fences, get out with a simple hello and smile to make someone’s day. If we see a local community struggling and we have the time and means to do something about it, we should. It’s as simple as cleaning up yards and as involved as starting community gardens and after-school programs. But all of these things will make our communities safer and more secure.
If we are going to work toward a safer and more secure nation, we need to work together and stop eyeing each other with suspicion. Instead of seeing adversaries with whom we don’t agree, we need to find a common ground and start working from there. And we need to do it soon.
And if we adults don’t, I see a generation coming up who isn’t going to ask for our permission to make changes. We may be lucky if they just invite us along for the ride.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!