When my kids returned to full-time, in-person learning at their giant Chicago Public Schools, the rules were clear about masks: If you’re indoors, you’re wearing one. This gave me (and a lot of parents and educators I know) some comfort, knowing the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 is decreased by face coverings — and knowing the folks who run our school district believe in science.
We still worry, of course. Mostly about lunch. Kids have to take their masks off to eat and drink, and social distancing is tough with thousands of students needing to eat during a distinct window of time.
For now, while the weather is tolerable, at my kids’ two schools, they eat outside. A fine solution.
Until a few days ago.
There was a shooting on a Tuesday near a high school a few miles from my son’s school. A 15-year-old boy was killed shortly after classes let out at 2:40 p.m. Four hours later, one of his classmates, also 15, was also shot and killed.
By Wednesday there were threats of retaliation — at the school where the boys who were killed attended and at several nearby schools. Many terrified parents, understandably, kept their kids home. Others, like I did, texted their kids every hour and frantically checked for email updates from our principals. (My son’s principal, it should be noted, was wonderful about keeping us informed on both increased safety measures and our kids’ spirits.)
Lunch was moved inside.
“In case they come shoot up the school,” my son told me matter-of-factly when I picked him up one sunny, inconceivably gorgeous afternoon.
I wanted to weep.
For our children who are growing up with the daily threat of violence. For educators who have to decide whether to expose their students to a deadly virus or a deadly shooting. For the boys who were killed. For their moms, who will never again be whole.
For how utterly, staggeringly common this sad tale is in America.
But weeping felt indulgent and pointless and might scare my son. So I pressed on.
By Friday, police had arrested an 18-year-old on charges of making threats against the schools, all of which were deemed unfounded. Lunch would, the following week, return outdoors.
On Friday, I actually wept.
Because whatever relief you feel about your child’s safety is, in America, tempered by the knowledge that it’s an ephemeral relief. Whatever relief you feel about your child’s safety is, in America, tempered by the knowledge that your relief means you are lucky. That another parent is not so lucky. That mothers’ and fathers’ hearts are regularly, routinely pierced by the singular pain of losing their children to gun violence.
We know this as surely as we know the sun will rise and set and the moon will continue its cycles and time will march on, unbowed by the bone-deep grief we’ve learned to accept as inevitable.
“Try homeschooling,” suggested a reader, when I mentioned on Twitter that my heart aches for our kids and their teachers, who find themselves contemplating death a whole lot more than is humane.
It’s a valid suggestion, and one that made sense for many, many families once COVID-19 arrived.
But I love my kids’ schools and teachers and school communities. And school is far from the only place they’re at risk of catching a virus or being shot. On the second day my son was eating indoor lunch, a gunman opened fire at a Tennessee Kroger, killing one person and wounding 14. The first news story I read about the incident included this line: “Shootings have happened in at least two other grocery stores this year.” A week later, there was a school shooting in Memphis.
Someone else on Twitter replied to my lament with a poem. It’s by the poet Maggie Smith, who posted it on Mother’s Day 2020.
“A poem of mine from Good Bones,” Smith tweeted, “about being a mother, but also about trying to love this imperfect world like one.”
It’s called, "Rain, New Year’s Eve."
"The rain is a broken piano,
playing the same note over and over.
My five-year-old said that.
Already she knows loving the world
means loving the wobbles
you can't shim, the creaks you can't
oil silent — the jerry-rigged parts,
MacGyvered with twine and chewing gum.
Let me love the cold rain's plinking.
Let me love the world the way I love
my young son, not only when
he cups my face in his sticky hands,
but when, roughhousing,
he accidentally splits my lip.
Let me love the world like a mother.
Let me be tender when it lets me down.
Let me listen to the rain's one note
and hear a beginner's song."
It’s not a solution. But it’s a balm. It’s a call to keep our hearts tender and vulnerable and searching for solutions, even when we want to wall them off and give up on humanity. It’s an aspiration and a prayer, of sorts.
We owe each other that much. Open, engaged hearts — searching for a better way, determined to create one, moved to action by the bone-deep grief we must never accept as inevitable.
Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens' Balancing Act Facebook group.
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