In Writing

The great tragedy of my middle age has been to finally get to unwrap the beautiful gift box of the American Dream, and to find that’s what’s contained within is not all I hoped for when I glimpsed the shiny, perfect bow from afar. I didn’t know about racism when I was growing up, or about the class divide. I was quite startled to realize at some point in my teens that some people had never been poor (some part of me had assumed that everyone grew up poor but some people pulled themselves out, something I now realize is laughable). I didn’t know how long it had taken women to get the vote, or the profit motives of war.

But, perhaps the hardest thing to come to grips with has been gun culture. Yes, I remember Westerns from when I was little. I know we’ve romanticized and fetishized guns for a long time. I remember watching the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid probably earlier than I should have, and Death Wish, and Bonnie and Clyde. But that always seemed a thing that was out there, not anything that ever touched my life personally, or that of anyone I knew. I grew up in poor neighborhood, but I never heard a gunshot, or knew of anyone who had a gun.

I was twenty-nine by the time Columbine happened. That also seemed out there at the time. It was a horrible anomaly, an inexplicable fluke. I pored over press coverage to try to understand it. I read Klebold’s mother’s essay in O magazine and cried. But it didn’t mean anything larger. It wasn’t a harbinger of anything to come, or a manifestation of an ill. It was just two boys going horribly off course.

I had my first baby a few months, and another the year after, and the news receded back behind teething rings and visits to the playground. I can’t say I remember being particularly aware of shootings in the early years of my children’s lives.

The first time I remember it touching us was when my kindergartener came home from school and told me in passing that they’d practiced hiding in their classroom. By the details I could tell my baby was describing a lockdown drill. The thought that this pristine, perfect canvas of a child of mine would one day understand that when her teacher told her to crouch down out of line of sight of the classroom door, that was as preparation for a shooter taking aim at her, was so sickening I could barely stand.

And then I started to hear about it on the news. Virginia Tech. That Amish school. And, oh God, Sandy Hook, a place within driving distance of me, and a classroom of dead first graders. And the Parkland kids with all their righteous rage and youthful ambition to finally change it for us all.

School shootings are exceedingly rare. I can cite you the statistics, because I recently researched them to help oppose a measure that would put armed guards in the safe little schools in my sleepy town. Our kids are far more likely to succumb to many other ills. School shootings are not a problem because all our children are in imminent danger of being shot in school, but because they’re the awful canary in the coal mine.

School shootings are rare, but gun violence is depressingly widespread in the United States. School shootings concentrate in one place  and time what is happening in ones and twos every single day. Women being shot by partners. Children accidentally discharging weapons. We’re the gun country, and guns are killing us in numbers unmatched in the industrialized world.

But I am weary down to my bones about the entrenched positions on this issue. I don’t want to shout at someone who wants to keep his guns. I don’t. I want us to all join hands as parents and siblings and humans and admit that we’re all scared, we all have but one chance to be here, and we are all trying to find our way.I think we can agree that children deserve to grow up without ever thinking someone may mow them down in school. I did. It never even crossed my mind. The most unsafe thing in my school was the girls who laughed at the picture day outfit my mom bought me at a thrift store.

This post was prompted because today I saw a sculpture by the father of one of the kids killed at Parkland. He called it The Last Lockdown, and it’s a child crouching under a school desk, fear in his face. He means it as a call for us to work together to make sure one day we can all know the last lockdown has taken place, and that children can go back to being oblivious to the danger of being shot, because it will cease to be a danger. I wish it for every school child, and I wish it for all the people on this great land.

Yes, I unwrapped the American Dream, and what’s inside the box is more complex and flawed than I’d imagined. But then childhood is illusion, and adulthood is reality. I still love this place, imperfections and all. I love it despite its divisions and entrenched positions, its rage and its unpaid debts to African Americans and women. I love it despite its guns, and the fact that right now we can’t seem to stem the tide.

I believe in us entirely. We have tackled every social ill, sometimes imperfectly, but with a steady drumbeat. Think of how impossible everyone said it was to beat the tobacco companies, until suddenly it was possible, and you could no longer smoke indoors or on planes. Think of how it was “just how things were” that African Americans couldn’t vote in certain places, or sit at lunch counters, and how now most of that would seem inconceivable to our young people. (And, yes, I know there’s still work to be done on both those counts and many more). But part of what happens when you pull together the most ambitious and nerviest, the hungriest and hardest-working from all around the world for generation after generation, and you put them here to pull and push for their share is that you make a people undaunted by anything, doggedly determined, endlessly inventive, and alight with a hope unmatched anywhere else I’ve been. We’ve got this. We’ll do this. One day, we will have our last lockdown.

To see an image of the Manuel Oliver’s sculpture, The Last Lockdown, click here.

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