Years ago, I overheard two parents talking at a fifth-grade graduation.
“We’ve got seven more years,” one father said, after which he and his wife were headed to Florida. He was sharing the countdown to his kid’s Big Graduation on one of the Little Graduation days. It may not have been the most sentimental response to the ceremony, which also featured a slideshow and ice cream, but I smiled in commiseration.
Who among us hasn’t done that same math at some point? This dad was just saying the quiet part loud.
In fairness, by the time high school graduation rolls around, many parents have already sat through kindergarten, fifth-grade and middle school graduations. I’m not mad about any of these. We may not have had the same ceremonial markers at younger grades growing up, but we also didn’t have to worry about dodging bullets during a math test. My point is that each generation has its own reasons to party, or at least let out a collective sigh of relief, before turning the page.
Our generation has grumbled about kids’ participation trophies and over-the-top “promposals,” while shrugging at kindergartners hiding in cabinets during mass-shooting intruder drills. Maybe it’s easier to get caught up by the small stuff that feels controllable rather than the big stuff that makes us feel powerless. Consider the posts on countless parenting groups’ pages: Someone’s upset because of a school district’s swimsuit policy at pool parties. Another parent is irritated about a teacher’s note on an unwelcome bag of chips in a school lunch.
Most of the chatter is about the small grievances and demands of daily parenting. And this makes sense. It’s what we are dealing with day-to-day.
But I do wonder how this depletes our focus from a more fundamental risk facing our children: How do we prevent the kind of gun violence in schools that is a regular feature of the news cycle now? Obviously, people have different ideas on how to do this. But think back to our school days. Can you imagine someone giving your English teacher a gun to use in a possible shootout in the hallway? It seems too ludicrous to even imagine, but this is a real idea that lawmakers, particularly those beholden to the National Rifle Association, have put out there.
The probability of a child dying in a school shooting is still very low. But the chances of a child carrying the scars of living through a mass shooting are significantly higher. Last year, the Washington Post did a yearlong analysis on the collateral damage of the “uniquely American crisis” of mass shootings in our schools. They found that, beginning with Columbine in 1999, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours.
The report noted that the number of children who have been shaken by gunfire in the places they go to learn exceeds the population of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
It made me wonder: What would our response have been if nearly 200,000 children had been sickened by school lunches? Food poisoning would have far less of a long-term impact on a child than surviving a shooting. But I bet we would have gotten rid of questionable lunches right away.
In the meantime, we’ve let a nightmare haunt our kids from kindergarten to college graduations. We’ve let them live with the anxiety of a classroom turning into a bloody war zone.
We don’t spend nearly as much time talking about things we haven’t been able to protect our children from, partly because there are countless immediate things for parents to worry about. But this new reality we’ve created for our kids has changed my countdown clock at these minor league graduations. When my youngest finished middle school this year, I was proud of the young man he’s becoming and excited about high school for him.
But in the back of my mind, I was relieved another school year had gone by without incident.
Four more years of high school, then hopefully, four years of college.
Along the way, I’m letting more of the small stuff slide.