My children are learning how to “shelter in place” in school. In Kid’s words, “If someone with a gun comes into the school, they will say a code word on the intercom and we all go into a corner of the classroom, after my teacher locks the door.” At first, I had this moment of mourning for their loss of childhood, etc, but then I stepped back and remembered that kids throughout US history have been practicing drills for different monsters under our collective beds.
In my childhood, it was the War on Drugs and DARE (Drug Abuse and Resistance Education). I still remember the movies – kids on PCP who thought they could fly, kids high on weed who let their baby brother drown, all the while laughing hysterically. And who can forget the commercial – “This is your brain on drugs” – a sizzling fried egg!~ One of my earliest memories of school is of the DARE bear, or was it a dog? I looked it up, turns out it was a lion?? A policeman and his DARE bear met with us every few months to tell us the dangers of drugs and urge us to turn in our parents if we caught THEM doing drugs. “Just Say No kids!” My kids have heard very little about the dangers of drugs and certainly have never seen a DARE bear. They HAVE learned about the dangers of obesity and Kid #2 always asks, “Am I burning calories? or Is this calories? as she takes a bite of food.” (This DOES NOT come from us, we don’t believe in the body shaming/dieting fad of our culture).
During WWII kids in schools practiced diving under tables in case the Axis powers conducted an air raid. In the 60’s – 80’s the cold war with Russia had us all looking for fallout shelters or building them in our back yard.
I guess my point is that in the moment our fears and anxieties seem very real and terrifying. After Sandy Hook, our schools appear to be nightmares of possible gunmen and murder. According to media, our children all more obese than ever so we should teach our kids about calories. Gunmen in schools, childhood obesity – these are our children’s monsters under the bed. But in other generations, their monsters also seemed very real and terrifying – drugs, nuclear warfare, German airraids. Today, the monsters of the past look small, even quaint. Or they, themselves, were the actual things we should have feared. The WAR on drugs has arguably done more damage than drugs – the mass incarceration of a whole generation have destroyed families and communities. It also distracted us from what we really should have been fighting – the growing inequality, the failure of trickle down economics, for instance.
My question is – if this is true, the monsters of the past were just distractions or worse- then maybe our monsters of today aren’t the ACTUAL monsters. Yes, a lone gunman did enter a elementary school and committed a terrifying act and thereby entered all parents’ nightmares. But he was also a child himself, who had long suffered from mental illness and his parents’ hadn’t been able to find him help. Maybe the real monster is the failure of our mental health system. Maybe it is an society that glamorizes violence, guns, and a mean-spiritness that makes it ok for politicians to attack teachers, firefighters, and other public workers as the drains on society. Yes, obesity and diabetes is on the rise among children. But Maybe the REAL monster is that parents are both working full time (which are 50-60hours a week), jobs don’t give us any time to take care of family, including cooking of healthy meals, parents increasingly rely on empty calories of McD’s dollar menus. Maybe it is the privatizing of our schools and the resulting pressure to produce high testing children and so they don’t have time for physical exercise, art, music, or other creative work.
As a parent, it feels like an exceptionally scary time to be raising children, there is a myth that times were simpler and the monsters tamer in the past. But in truth, children in our society have always been in danger, in capitalism, it’s the most vulnerable that are the least likely to survive. From Black children throughout the US history, to child workers in the factories, and even now children working in our fields, children dying at our borders, it is only the death of certain children that become a national tragedy. Our children are at risk differently, based on race, class, and gender, gender identity, sexual orientation – the fact that we help some children thrive while letting others die – that is the real monster under our collective beds. As poet Audre Lorde said:
“So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive”
But those are not the monsters that our children are being prepared for when they learn to shelter in place.