The third graders are having their first active shooter drill. It arrives over the intercom without warning and without explanation: “We’re on lockdown. There’s an active shooter in the building. We must barricade and hide.”
After they move their desks, they press into the large closet at the back of the classroom, close the door behind them, and hope to be passed over. One boy—my boy—won’t stop crying, which is intolerable; it will get everyone killed.
I remember loving a short story long ago in which a grandmother, her beloved dog, and a surly granddaughter hide from threatening men beneath a dock. The dog won’t stop barking, and so the grandmother holds him underwater until he does. My son’s classmates revolt: “Shut up, B___! They’ll know where to find us! Shut up shut up shut up shut up!”
The older parent generations remember Duck and Cover drills, about which we now joke: Do you remember . . . ? Did you . . . ? Climb under our desks with our forearms as shelter from flesh-melting radiation.
We think we have a point of reference with our children, but these drills are not equivalent. Our disaster-in-waiting was impersonal, pervasive. Radiation would become indivisible with air and water and soil. And it had an edge of grim fun—an evil empire with ridiculous accents; 1,001 spy movies and to-the-brink thrillers; a wry arsenal of nuke jokes. Who wants to watch a movie about a school shooter, a group of concertgoers getting picked off from a great height, a boy who assembles his arsenal for a trip to the movies? Who wants to watch our own violent children?
And when we imagined dying—as we were invited to do through school assembly filmstrips—it was collective. We would be regionally, perhaps nationally, obliterated. Kids’ cotton-poly blends would melt into their skin in unison.
These children must think about individual shooters, individual bullets, friends and enemies falling. But only some hallways and classrooms will be visited, only some faces will compose the newspaper’s grid the next morning. And you might be able—or be called upon—to stop him. Or you might bring the angel of death with your fear. “Shut up, B___! They’ll find us!”
But he can’t shut up. He never could. He is funny, full of ideas, anxious, emotionally voluble, discomposed. Our parenting could be described as a messy remembering and forgetting that the goal is not to have a child who displays and retracts the emotions most convenient and palatable in any given moment. Those moments we would do anything to have an unperturbed child, a rock in a stream—when we ourselves are scraps of flotsam half drowned in a frothy jetty. Isn’t the narrative of the school shooter that of a child whose thoughts and feelings have gone subterranean? Dark web crawling, fantasies scrolling well back behind his eyes. The boys whose fear and anger have been metabolized into homicidal rehearsal and performance. Boys who learn control over their features and then move on to control over mortality: You and you and you and then, sometimes, me. “Shut up, B____! Shut up!”
The nuclear drills and the shooter drills do have one implication in common, though: We have unleashed a power into the world that is now beyond our control. The genie metaphor. The golem metaphor. The contagion and epidemic metaphors. All we can do is prepare for the inevitable. The fallout metaphor. The bunker mentality.
As fallout shelters proliferate in school basements across the country, so are school shooting consultancy businesses popping up like mushrooms on a dissolving log. Schools hire consultants because they don’t know what to do, but they must do something. Consultants don’t know how to power down our country’s violence factory either, but to get paid, they give schools a shopping list, a power point of action steps, and a protocol for active shooter drills.
But to be clear, the active shooter is drilling among them right now. The number of times he has said something eagerly and been met with silence is boundless. Can you smell the home-scent on his shirt? He’s shoving desks against the door, crying or telling people to shut up, or just staying very, very quiet.
A tremendous aircraft carrier-turned-museum, the Intrepid, is permanently parked at a pier in New York City. In the years before my son was born, I regularly whizzed by it on my bike with averted eyes. An instrument of war open for family-friendly business. As if the force of my disapproval could rock it on its moorings. Having no option, at this point in history, but to live in a militarized nation-state, I hoped my aversion could denature the vexing questions of a country’s violence and self-protection, its defense and offense. My turned head was the gesture of a small child: If I don’t see you, you don’t exist.
After my son was born, I took him anywhere in the city that had free programs for children. We went once on a two-hour journey—subway, then ferry, then bus—to the Staten Island Zoo for a dinosaur festival. I felt I needed a destination more than rest, or scruples. So we biked down to the warship, once, when he was three or four. It was hosting, of all things, a naturalist group who had brought a selection of rescued raptors and planned to teach young children about predator-prey relationships.
They played a game—if you are a prey species, what are your defenses? Freeze, hide, run, poison, spike, spit, mimic! They sang a song, mimed the movements: running, freezing, hiding, and spiking. And then out came the raptors—owl, hawk, falcon—and we watched them swoop through the cavernous hold and return for a glistening chunk from a gloved hand. The birds seemed to know they were putting on a show. They got as close to the heads in the crowd as they could, producing ducks and gasps and a whiff of fear.
They were demonstrating their skills as predators, and in that moment, we had the fear of prey. But the birds looked to their humans for signals and food, a misplaced trust if there ever was one. They had all been wounded—largely via cars—then nursed, caged, and fed by humans. They now had to perform to survive, perform both their wildness and their obedience. Add perform to the list of survival skills.
On the top deck, a level over our heads, were military birds of prey from different eras and even a space shuttle, for scanning outer space territories. Aficionados could stroll this giant parking lot to admire fighter planes in their resting state. Below decks, visitors were invited to become soldier protagonists: climb into the cockpit of an early, loose-jointed helicopter or an interactive submarine and work the controls; seal yourself into a Screaming Eagle, a Navy Hornet, or a g-force simulator. It’s play, but as with animals, play is training.
But look at his joy, running from one exhibit to the next. This boy in his leotard, tights, and tutu pew-pew-pewing in the power seat. I broke down my scruples for parts: We watched the Pacific Theater movie; I climbed into the helicopter with him, cranked away at the levers. Then we ate applesauce and french fries with a mound of ketchup in the mess hall and sang the song of the prey because we are just playing at war and don’t identify as predators.
Freeze, run, poison, spike, spit, mimic, perform. Humans know how to switch the labels so that acts of aggression read as self-defense. We can show up in khakis—the guise of gentle nature lovers—with predators in cages and turn survival strategies into dance moves inside of a warship.
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TO READ MORE FROM THIS ESSAY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 56 No. 3
AMY BENSON is the author of two books: Seven Years to Zero (Dzanc Books, 2017), winner of the Dzanc Books Nonfiction Prize, and The Sparkling-Eyed Boy (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), chosen for Bread Loaf’s Bakeless Prize. She is the co-founder of the First Person Plural Reading Series in Harlem and teaches writing at Rhodes College in Memphis.