Friday, May 25, 2018
NINJA STUFF: A School Shooting Happened Here, In My Town
I don't want to be writing this. I want that amazing interview with my hero Louis Sachar, author of Holes, Sideways Stories From Wayside School, and other classics, to be the top post at Middle Grade Ninja for as long as possible because it was a really big deal for me to get and you should read his interview if you haven't already. It's inspiring stuff and the proper subject of a blog about reading and writing middle grade novels.
But I live in the United States, so it was just a matter of time until a school shooting happened here, yes, even in a nice little Indiana suburb where we bought our house originally for the great schools.
They're still great schools. One angry young man with a gun doesn't change that. And truth be told, there was a time in my life when I might've been that angry young man. More on that momentarily, but first, let me tell you about my morning:
I had my coffee and read a good chunk of Float by my friend Laura Martin, who will be here soon to discuss her amazing new novel. I adore and admire Laura's writing, so the day started off right. I woke up Little Ninja, who wasn't feeling morning just yet, so I held him and let him sleep in my lap and read some more of Laura's book because cuddles from my four-year-old and a good book are the best thing in the world.
If this had been our last morning together, I'd know my boy knew I loved him. So I'd have that to hold onto as I spiraled into whatever Dr. Lois Creed Pet Semmetary madness awaits those poor fathers who lose their children. I can't imagine... but today, I'm forced to, and I tell you I'd never be okay again. Not ever.
Eventually, Little Ninja was awake enough to eat some toast, put on a long-sleeved shirt (he won't do short sleeves, despite a temperature of 75) and brush his teeth. We went outside to wait for the school bus. And he wanted a hug because he's only four and hugs from his dad are still wanted. The day may come when he's too old for all that, but I'm putting that day off for as long as I can. My son's love has given my life a greater significance than I ever expected it to have.
I wished the bus driver and the attendant a happy Memorial Day weekend and they wished me the same and it was all smiles and normality because this is small-ish town Indiana and we Hoosiers are generally happy folk who like each other. I've visited your big cities and lived in Chicago and that's fine if you're into that sort of thing, but I like knowing my neighbors and who's minding Little Ninja when I'm not--and that's ONLY during the couple hours a day he goes to early education, the two, almost three hours a day I'm not watching him. I trust the bus driver and attendant as well as Little Ninja's extraordinary teachers and the administrators at his school because I've met with all of them multiple times and determined them to be trustworthy.
The moment the bus left, I started on my usual morning walk during which I brainstormed some brilliant ideas for revisions to my newest novel, Banneker Bones and the Alligator People, which will be available soon if nobody shoots me first. Banneker Bones is my favorite character and I was smiling and listening to The Dark Knight soundtrack, which always puts me in a Banneker mood, because all was right with the world, just another Friday morning, no reason to get excited, though there was one here among us who felt that life was but a joke.
I was nearly home, could in fact see my house in the distance, just as I'd thought of the perfect super hilarious thing for Ellicott Skullworth to say to Banneker Bones, when my phone buzzed with a notification: "Shots have been reported at (my town's) schools. Police are on site and all schools are on lock down."
And there it is. That's all it takes for the whole world to turn upside down and for nothing to ever be the same again. Never for one minute think your phone can't buzz with the same message.
Less than 30 minutes ago, I was the content father of a four-year-old. Am I still?
Oh my God, oh sweet Jesus, I know I wrote The Book of David and said a whole lot of mean and blasphemous things about organized religion, but please God, I take it all back, I'm sorry, Jesus, don't do this to me, don't do this to my wife, don't do this to Little Ninja's grandparents, please, Lord, I know I'm an American and I didn't protest for gun control because I was busy trying to make ends meet and I didn't take the threat serious, and I should've called my senators and congressmen, but I figured they don't care about me anyway and I had enough problems without worrying about the Washington swamp, but if You're real, if You were ever real, Lord, if any of the religion I learned in my youth ever meant anything, please don't do this, I'm not home yet, God, You still have time to take it back, You can still make it okay, I know You can, don't do this, God, please, I beg You with my whole heart and soul and everything I ever had or ever will have, don't do this, I'll make it up to You, God, I swear I will, just don't take my son from me, I can't live without him, Lord, don't do this, Lord, please don't...
I ran all the way home.
I got online to read the news.
God didn't let my baby be murdered today. Or there is no God and I got lucky. I don't know. Maybe it's the Indiana in me, but I needed God to be real today and today She was.
When I read the news, I saw the shooter had already been apprehended. And it was the middle school, not the elementary school that had been attacked. So my baby was probably okay... probably.
It's Little Ninja's first full year of school. And he loves it. His teacher is truly one of the best human beings I've ever met. Hands down, Mrs. Sarah Dodson is a better person than I am. She has infinite patience and limitless love for her students. Every parent-teacher conference we've had, she's expressed love for my son and for her job and if it were up to me who Indiana built our next statue of, it would be her. My son has some special needs that have worried me a whole lot, and Little Ninja has made so much progress under her tutelage. I tagged along on a field trip on a rainy October day to a pumpkin patch and I personally witnessed Mrs. Dodson muddy and exhausted, but still filled with enthusiasm for her students. When I think of the great teachers of the world, I will always think of Mrs. Dodson.
Today, I saw Mrs. Dodson cry. Who would do that to so wonderful a woman? Who would make her hurt? What unjust, cruel, uncaring God would look down from Her heaven and allow that to happen?
I won't pretend to remember everything that happened this morning. It's all a blur of panic, but I remember thinking, please, Lord, make that son of b**ch Marco Rubio hurt. Let Ayn Rand sycophant Paul Ryan feel this pain (and please, let hell be real so there's a place for him to burn in after this life). Twist Mitch McConnell's turtle guts with the evil he's allowed to befall the people he was supposed to be watching out for. These are bad men, Lord, and enemies of the American people who sold their souls to the NRA and let innocent children be murdered so they could collect campaign contributions. They are worms crawling bare-bellied in the dirt and beneath my contempt.
I know this. Every American who reads the news knows this.
And you go straight to hell, Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who came to to offer your empty thoughts and prayers when we know you accepted $2,896,732 in contributions from the NRA. You give up every cent of blood money you've taken and dedicate the rest of your life to making this right and maybe we Hoosiers can forgive you. Until then, go f**k yourself.
I thought of all this today, and of the political tweets I've sent and the occasional FB posts I've made, but all that makes no difference when there's a shooter in your community. I haven't attended any political protests recently (I can't get a sitter for Black Panther, let alone a protest march).
All that political rhetoric, all that wasted energy raging about what crooked officials are doing hundreds of miles from here in Washington means exactly f**k all when it's your child's school that's on lock down from a shooter and you get that call in the middle of your morning when you're supposed to be focused on writing a lovely children's story and imagining a better world.
Mrs. Dodson called me as I was watching for Little Ninja's school bus to tell me the bus wasn't coming. If I'd stayed home today, if the bus had brought Little Ninja to me as usual, this incident might've just been another school shooting on the news. I would've still been terrified, but one step removed. Instead, I had to go to the school in person.
Here's what I experienced and what you can look forward to happening to you WHEN, not IF, this happens in your town at your kid's school:
I arrived at the same elementary school I've been to dozens of times and turned into the wrong entrance despite being 100% sober because I was not in the right frame of mind. I still didn't believe my son was okay until I held him in my arms and even then knowing what could've happened, what maybe even did happen in another reality before God took pity on me and made it right, what might happen next time... I turned around, getting honked at by a passing driver, and then went into the correct entrance.
At the front door was a regular dude in a police uniform. Not an Avenger, not a member of the Justice League, just a dude like me if I were brave enough to put on that uniform. He assured the parents ahead of me that the victims of the shooting were probably going to survive, but he didn't know for sure. Of course he didn't. How could he? His job was to ensure the distraught parents arriving weren't packing heat and that's more than I did for my community today.
I went inside and showed my driver's license, but the people in the front office know me. I'm not an absentee parent, so they smiled and said, "Hello, Mr. Kent," and called Mrs. Dodson to bring Little Ninja to me. While I waited in the front office, another little girl of approximately six was brought to her mother. "Why are all the parents picking up the kids?" she asked. Her mother thought up a lie and she thought it up quick: "They must all be going to the lake for Memorial Day weekend as well."
No judgement here. If Little Ninja had asked, I'd have lied as well, and I admire the way this woman maintained a smile despite the tears in the eyes of the other adults present.
The next little girl who came into the administrator's office wasn't so charmingly gullible. She was in the fourth or fifth grade and if it hadn't been for her, I think I could've maintained, honestly. But this little girl saw her mother and burst into tears and I won't ever forget it as long as I live. She knew the danger she was in. She'd seen through the bulls**t and knew anyone could come to her school and kill her anytime and it was sheer luck it hadn't happened today.
And her mother was trying so hard to be a strong parent, to tell her that yes, Santa is real, and you can grow up to be anything you want even though the American economy is rigged against you, and of course you were never in any real danger. But she couldn't. Of course she couldn't. She burst into tears and embraced her child.
And I cried. God**nit, Esteemed Reader, I don't cry. Not ever. I've cried maybe three times in my whole adult life because big strong Hoosier men don't cry outside of when I'm watching a movie and it's cool to tear up a little when Spider-man tells Iron Man "I don't want to go," but I cried at real life today.
I'm crying as I type this, because I never thought I'd see something like that in my town. Because that nasty, awful stuff only happens on TV. It doesn't happen here where I live. That little girl knew she wasn't safe, hadn't ever been safe, not really, and I don't know how she'll ever feel safe in school again. And her mother couldn't maintain. Of course, she couldn't. I couldn't either. I doubt I'll ever forget today, but I know that little girl and her mother won't forget it.
They embraced and wept because they live in the United States where this happens all the time. Her child wasn't safe, my child isn't safe, and neither is yours. Politicians will stand back and let our children die so long as their campaigns are funded. Never think they won't.
It was at that moment that Mrs. Dodson arrived with Little Ninja. Probably she would've maintained. Mrs. Dodson is tough and I have infinite respect for her. But she saw that little girl and her mother and she saw me looking away and being all I'm-not-crying-you're-crying, because there are innocent children in this office and I'm not going to bawl in front of them.
Mrs. Dodson cried then and I cried. Maybe it's not appropriate to hug your kid's early education teacher. God knows I've never done it before, nor would I have under any other circumstances. We hugged and we cried and I said, "I'm so sorry this happened."
And she said, "He was safe. He was always safe."
Oh, Mrs. Dodson, how I wish that were so. And I don't doubt for a single second that you'd take a bullet for any of your students if it came to it and I love you for it, but my boy was NEVER safe in an American school. Not for one minute. It's his first full year of school and today I briefly thought somebody killed him just for wanting to learn.
Esteemed Reader, your children aren't safe either. Not in the United States.
And that's where I should leave it. I don't know how we fix this. I'm not that smart. We can write to our senators, but I don't have $2,896,732 to offer them unless y'all buy a whole lot more of my books, and politicians don't give a sh*t about average people. We know this. They think they're better than us and they're wrong, but I've seen the members of my fellow populace, and I get it.
Here's something else I know: I almost took a gun to school in the seventh grade. My father had a pistol in his closet he thought I didn't know about, but I did. And I put it in my backpack. I put it back where I got it before my bus came and my father never knew it was temporarily missing.
It's hard for me to accurately remember what went through my mind. Seventh grade was over 25 years ago now (Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast).
But I remember I was angry. Of course I was. Adolescence is hard, much harder than I care to recall. I had terrible acne and despite the title of this blog, I've never been ninja-like. I was chubby then and I'm chubby now, I've just learned that life is short and you can still find someone to love you despite chubbiness.
But seventh grade seemed like forever while it was happening; like it was all the time that ever was or was ever going to be, and my fellow seventh graders were as mean-spirited as I was. Everyday, I got picked on, and not just by the other kids, but by the teachers as well, and you bet I fantasized about making them pay.
Some of their scorn I brought on myself, not that I could see it then, being too young to know I was a jerk. I'd repeat just about any phase of my life, but Jesus save me, not middle school. If I should die a long, painful death, at least I won't be in middle school. Probably that's why in the one YA novel I've written, I made most of the adolescents zombies:)
Esteemed Reader, I'm wrung out. It's been a long day and my heart has been broken. The school I send my one and only child to everyday was threatened and I can't ever put Little Ninja on a bus again without wondering if I'm sending a lamb to the slaughter. I doubt any Hoosier parent here in my town will ever take that for granted again.
What I do know is we can't live like this. Don't kid yourself that this can't happen where you live. That's what I thought. America is a land of violence and violence will find you, even in my quiet Indiana town. Even where you live.
I don't know what the solution is. Honestly. I think sensible gun control laws are a damn fine start and I think politicians not bought and paid for by the gun lobby would be an even better one. But I had access to a gun when I was in middle school, despite my father's being a responsible gun owner. I didn't shoot the place up. I wrote a novel instead.
I do know that the United States has an epidemic of gun violence and it seems unrealistic to hope all potential school shooters are also aspiring novelists. And I know that if I'd had no access to guns, I would've never even come close. And the young man today, who's name I won't publicize, couldn't have shot squat if his access to a gun had been restricted.
I don't know the young man, but I'd be real surprised to learn he was a pure monster from birth until he picked up those handguns. I'd be real surprised to learn he had no good qualities and no one ever loved him ever.
I'm not a monster. Adolescence is a hard and confusing time of raging emotions and if you never had a dark moment in your youth, that's great for you, but most of us had one or two. Kids are allowed to think dumb thoughts. Around that time, I also courted racism as a philosophy (white guy in a small town, remember). Yet, I've shared my life with a black woman for 13 years and Banneker Bones is a biracial boy just like my kid.
Children should be allowed to be wrong and explore dark thoughts. It's part of growing up. Our job as parents is to keep them safe and restrict their access to weapons so they don't hurt themselves or others before they reach adulthood.
Alas, our government is bought and paid for, and guns remain plentiful. I assure you, for every school shooting that happens, there are ten, twenty, maybe a hundred or a thousand or more that don't happen. If we take access to guns out of the equation, maybe we can further drop that number.
This isn't something that just happens elsewhere. It happened here. It will happen where you live. Unless we get serious as a nation and do something to prevent it. Heck, I'd even be okay with fewer school shootings. It would be a good start and fewer dead kids, though not perfect, would be better.
I pray we do that, Esteemed Reader. I pray you don't ever feel the way I do today. And I'm going to do more than think and pray. I'm going to speak out. And I'm going to vote.