On Fridays I volunteer at my daughter’s school library- less for altruistic reasons, and mostly for the chance to catch a glimpse of my kindergartener in her new environment. I am curious how she interacts with her classmates; plus she thinks it’s pretty cool that I stamp and scan her book and those of her classmates like a “real librarian.” The afternoon is predictable. I scan in returned books that always feel slightly grimy to the touch, re-shelve them and stamp out new books handed to me by squirmy elementary school children. While checking in books, I usually browse through them before reshelving, and if I see anything interesting, I’m allowed to take out as many as I’d like for her- which usually ends up being far too many.
It’s Friday- the last two hours of the afternoon. The milieu is one of a muted snow day- weary excitement, the palpable energy of a weekend about to begin when that last bell rings. Teachers seem tired, their voices strained as they drop off their class…kids are louder and more restless.
But last Friday’s routine was fractured. “There’s gonna to be a lockdown drill in a few minutes,” the school library assistant I report to leans in and tells me quietly, casually.
The school doesn’t usually notify staff when the drill will be because that wouldn’t really be a drill. But somehow word had gotten around, and because a class of kindergarteners were going to be in the library at that time, someone had figured the librarian, who is new to the school, might appreciate a little forewarning.
And so, we wait. The kids are working on a craft, and as the clock moves past the time of the supposed drill, the three of us, the librarian, the assistant, and myself, become anxious. It’s easier to have the children at the tables working on a craft during the drill than for them to be scattered picking out their book for the week, so the librarian eyes the clock, and says to me, “I’ll give ‘em another minute”… every few minutes.
Behind the counter where I usually sit and stamp the books, I wait, standing up.
I’d heard about the lockdown drills from another mother early in the school year, and although I was glad to know there are security measures and drills in place- it knocked the wind out of me the day I heard my four year old tell me that she had practiced hiding “very, very quietly today with the lights out, incase an animal like a deer accidentally got in our school.” “Does she question this?” I had wondered. Somewhere in her, the way I often feel she knows that I am the one who really puts her Christmas presents under the tree- does she intuit on some subconscious level that the drills have nothing to do with deer? Or is the truth so unfathomable to her innocent perspective- that she takes it on faith completely.
And now, one week away from the anniversary of Newtown, in the second week of Advent, I wait. It is not her Friday in the library, and she is in another classroom. I do not know where.
I asked the assistant if there would be an alarm, and she said it would likely just be an announcement over the loud speaker.
“Mom, did you have lockdowns when you were five years old and in kindergarten?” she asks me later while we walk home from school.
“No, I did not.”
“Really? Why not?”
“We just didn’t.”
When the speaker finally crackles and a man’s voice announces, “We will now be having a lockdown drill…” the librarians gather the children behind the bookshelves, on the floor. The children do not question this, but sit still and silent, huddled together. I sit out of their sight on the other side of the shelf in a child-sized chair I find there. The silence of a crowd or group of people- especially children, has a weighty presence all its own. The silence. On the floor. Waiting.
It is only a drill. But my mind projects action into the silence- into the waiting which feels like ten minutes but is probably only five. I realize tears are streaming down my face. My daughter is in another room hiding from a potential killer. Because there was a killer- in Newtown last year. Because the worst case scenario did happen in another small town like mine. Children were murdered. Silence gave way to terrible sounds that I will not hear today.
And my tears are not the kind of cathartic tears that modern humans who are so busy and self-absorbed are almost pleased to bear because it means they’re feeling something deeper than their superficial everyday demands of them. They are fearful tears, and sorrowful, and I do not feel catharsis. This moment is the reason my first task after dropping her off each morning is to whisper quiet prayers for her – repetitive mantras and verses because I can’t articulate in my own words what it is I’m asking or why it wasn’t so for those children on that December 14th. Along with the fact that I have also suffered a tragic loss and am quite aware it doesn’t only happen to “other people,” this moment makes me stop what I’m doing throughout the day when I hear the town siren go off at the fire department or an ambulance speeds by and I check to see which direction it’s heading in.
I hesitate to record this moment in words- even though it is writing itself as I sit there that afternoon- because this is not my story- because other people have born the true suffering behind this moment, and because I believe it is cheap to use the suffering of others to yield emotion from your craft. But yet, I am compelled by the paradoxical pairing in that moment of the grotesque and something else- the holy. Holy because every lockdown, every drill, in every state and town in this country, is a memorial. A moment of silence and remembering for those of us who will never forget. It is of such small solace to those who truly bear the burden of loss every moment of every day, and yet still- it is sacred.
“The horror of these times would be unendurable unless we kept being cheered and set upright again by the promises that are spoken. The angels of annunciation, speaking their message of blessing into the midst of anguish, scattering their seed of blessing that will one day spring up amid the night, call us to hope. These are not yet the loud angels of rejoicing and fulfillment that come out into the open, the angels of Advent. Quiet, inconspicuous, they come into rooms and before hearts as they did then.” Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest- written in a Nazi prison shortly before he was hanged in 1945.