I didn’t stop the discussion when the thought, Play dead, hit me. I kept going, even as my heart broke into a million little pieces.
Because I remembered the absolute dread I felt 2 years ago, the day that I realized that there is no safe place in this world.
My friend Mel has said that having children is exactly like having your heart live outside of your chest, walking around unprotected and vulnerable.
She is so, so right.
I did not know this about parenting until I became a parent: you will worry about your child all the time, every day, constantly. Most days it’s a low hum, underneath, more concerned about safety issues while crossing the street and should Santa bring that tablet he wants for Christmas this year and okay, runny nose and he feels warm, does it make sense for him to stay home today?
Other times it flares up into an all-consuming fear, like when he had that 104 degree fever, or the day he ate the cashew, or the one time he ran away from me in a parking lot and I was convinced he was going to get hit by a car.
But the worry. It’s always there.
When O was newborn, I was absolutely paranoid about stairs. I had these daymares brought on by extreme sleep deprivation, where I dreamed I dropped him. I joked that it was my thing – I was worried about him falling. So I counted every stair when I was carrying him downstairs. I waited until Puck (our cat at the time) was past the landing before I’d attempt to walk down with him in my hands.
And then, when he was about 9 months old, I slipped at the top of a set of stairs in a friend’s house. With him in my arms. I slid the whole way down, and somehow managed to hold him aloft so that he didn’t get hurt. Not a scratch, not a bump, just a little crying because holy shit it’s terrifying to fall down a flight of stairs when your mom is holding you.
At least, it is for mom.
And that’s the thing about fear.
I obsessed and worried about falling ALL the time… but I was powerless to keep it from happening.
When it comes to classroom safety, I have zero control over making him safe. He really has very limited power in making him safe.
But I have to talk about it, what might be best in the remote situation where a bad man with a gun is in his classroom, doing bad things to his teachers and friends.
So I said the words, Play dead.
He had recently watched a Nova special on Yellowstone Park, where two hikers recounted their experience with a charging bear: when they realized they could not get away, they fell face first on the trail and played dead.
He recounted for me every detail: how the lead hiker moved to get his bear spray out of his pocket, and how the bear charged him again and bit him, and how finally he was able to get a direct hit in the bear’s face with the bear spray, and the grizzly tore off and left them alone.
I used that as my discussion fodder. I asked him if he thought it was smart to try and move, because he ended up getting bitten. And he said, yes, mom, he needed to get his bear spray!
And then I asked him, if, when he’s hiding during lockdown and there’s a stranger in his classroom, he had bear spray.
No, he said. I don’t have human spray either.
So I told him how important it is that he stay hidden, and safe, and to lie down face first, just like the hiker, and play dead if he’s scared.
He gets it.
As much as any first grader can get it, anyway.
This is the first of many hard conversations we will need to have with him, I know. There are many others waiting in the wings. And every time, my heart will ache and I will get angry that this is the world in which we live.
But this IS the world in which we live. No place is safe.
And it is my responsibility as his parent to prepare him as best as I can with tools that might be useful… in case of emergency.