School Massacres and Other Tragedies: Part 1

I can see now that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible and gorgeous and tragic. I can’t reconcile the contradiction except that I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. That life is so beautiful and life is so hard. -Kate Bowler

It’s kind of like 9/11 for me. In a heartbeat, I’m back to that sunshiny, blue sky spring afternoon, the trees on the cusp of budding with new life and possibility, the windows down on our black Chevy Venture. The cool, crisp breeze blows against my cheeks, rumpling my short brown hair. I glance back at my 2 little girls buckled into their car seats, princesses they are. The older one is telling the younger one a story. Always. 

That was the afternoon of April 20,1999. Up front, I was listening to talk radio loudly, the volume competing with the open window. A news bulletin interrupted the show. Two gunmen had opened fire at a high school in the sleepy suburbs of Denver, CO mowing down students and teachers alike. 15 shot dead in cold blood. 16 more injured. There was chaos and screaming and crying as the reporter interviewed people who lived to tell the tale. In the moment, my brain couldn’t connect the dots. How do you complete a picture where a mama packs a sack lunch for her kid one morning, counting down the days until summer vacation. She calls out a quick goodbye as the child rushes out the door to catch a school bus. Late again. She notices that the hug got missed. Moms always do. But told herself she’d be ready at the door tomorrow. She’d hug her baby tomorrow. And now, tomorrow will never come. There won’t be any more tomorrows with her beloved. No lunches. No hugs. No summer vacation. No anything.

 I had no hooks for that horror story. Columbine slapped my parental naivety in the face.That’s when I knew. I decided right then and there behind the wheel of my minivan that I would homeschool my kids. I know, you can’t protect your kids from every risk or potential danger. Believe me, I know. But you can move heaven and earth to protect them from the things you know could hurt them and when you hear a story like Columbine, you know school could hurt them and you can’t unknow once you know.

My husband had been advocating for home education for at least a year. The next fall our firstborn would be headed to Kindergarten. I was a certified special education teacher. He thought it was a no-brainer. A college professor, he admired the academic prowess of his homeschool students. “They’re better thinkers,” he claimed. “They don’t just learn for the test.” That impressed him. Meanwhile, having never been an out of the box thinker myself, I considered it to be overrated and not evidence enough for home schooling. I, on the other hand, am one who assesses decisions largely through a relational grid. I’d been an only child for my first eleven years and the loneliness of that part of my story painted a background on my life canvas. I’d always sleuthed out a few good friends. The best, actually. And I wanted our girls to be able to connect and find relationships too. I didn’t want them to be the social misfits homeschoolers were stigmatized as back in the day. I had been thinking traditional school. Christian school, of course. I didn’t want my little sweethearts to be indoctrinated by secular atheists and influenced by unwholesome family values. How to afford it? That was a formidable obstacle. But my parents managed on a school custodian single income salary with some savvy resourcefulness and humility enough to ask for scholarships. Until that day, that had been my plan. But that day, I threw my playbook into the Grand River on our family walk later that evening and signed on to homeschooling. We all have defining moments that change everything. Columbine shaped our family story forever.

I went to Littleton this winter. Almost 23 years after the tragedy. All but one of my kiddos are now grown up and none of them have yet been a victim of school shootings. Thanks be to God! I went to visit a friend, unaware she’d moved less than a mile from the infamous school. I took a walk one afternoon along the trails that wound through her neighborhood and wondered if I passed either of the shooters childhood homes. I pondered if any of the people who lived in the houses I walked past still live with PTSD and other injuries from the events of that day. 

I wondered about those boys mamas. Who are they? And what must  it be like to hold a baby to your breast and sing him lullabies one day and the next he becomes a  mass murderer before he can legally smoke a cigarette. In my psychology classes, we are taught that the cardinal rule for setting a human up for relational health is early nurturing by a primary caregiver. A baby needs to know that there is someone in the world that they are secure with, who will soothe, see and keep them safe. This builds a foundation for healthy attachment and has the power to shape a life. I questioned, as I meandered through that Colorado neighborhood, did those parents royally screw up? When I got back from my walk, I just had to google search where they lived. What’s their family story? I came across an article written by Dylan’s mom years afterward called A Mother’s Reckoning and I watched her speak on a TED talk. She wasn’t an absentee parent and their family had been intact. She appeared to have loved deeply and tried her best. Honestly, she sounded alot like me. She told about her cauldron of grief mixed with intense shame and isolation following that fateful day. “No matter how hard you try, you might not know your child and they might not let you,” she said. 
Ouch! I’ve been that kind of child and I’ve had children like that.

When I was younger, I’d have been more comfortable to make sweeping judgements against Eric and Dylan’s mamas and whatever mistakes they may have made. To console myself as a Christian with Biblical promises I pulled from Scripture regardless of their context but that effectively nurtured a prosperity gospel teaching that if I do my part, God will bless.  I worked sincerely, perseveringly hard to follow what I thought was Scripture’s recipe for correctly training up my children in the way they should go and claimed what I believed to be a promise that when they are old, they won’t depart from it.

Christians have a tendency to throw around Bible verses like they’re a money back guarantee. Why do we do that? When God, who identifies Himself as Father created His original children, formed in His image, it didn’t even take a single generation of flawless parenting for His kids to rebel, to lie and to demand autonomy completely naive of their own ignorance. That went so well for them that by the time God had grandchildren, the siblings were killing each other. Truth is, I can’t guarantee that my kid won’t be a mass murderer or that she won’t be the victim of one.

I’m sitting at my kitchen table as I write. There’s a Mama Robin flitting back and forth between my maple tree and the hanging fern on my front porch. She crafted her nest carefully and laid 3 blue eggs in the center a few weeks back. There’s another nest tucked right under the back deck in the cross beam of the supports. Mama Robin #2 is tending that nest. Thanks to both of their maternal instincts, their two broods of babies are both brilliantly protected. Perched in the nearest trees, the mamas supervise with vigilance, leaving only to secure snacks and meals for their little ones. Any action around the nests result in a dramatic lecture to the humans who encroach. As far as it’s up to those mamas, the babies are likely to grow and thrive. Thing is, there are so many other dangers and perils within and without and the depressingly low statistics say that likely not more than 1 out of the 6 birdies will live to see their first birthday.
That is the sad, undeniable truth of life under the sun. There are no guarantees for birds or humans except for this one.

The steadfast love of the Lord never changes, His mercies, they never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness, O God. (Lam. 3:22-23)

And to all of us who are living our own stories of dashed hopes and dreams, losses and disappointments, illnesses and disease, but especially to the dear ones in Uvalde Texas, I cling to this promise—the one that actually is a promise- that somehow God’s love, mercy and faithfulness will be enough for today and new again tomorrow.

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