I set off on this snowy, brittle afternoon to pick up my K-8 kids from school. The roads were smeared with dirty ice and winds shoved the van. It felt precarious, like the whole day, a slick white tightrope between home and my kids, elsewhere. I was glad to get to them, to bring us all under one roof safe again, until tomorrow. I’ve said this before, and the time has come to say it again:
It shouldn’t be an act of courage to send your kids to school.
A song came on the radio. It was John Mayer’s No Such Thing. It’s about high school and not fitting in. It’s about having hopes beyond being Prom King and Queen. It’s about biding time.
I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
top of my lungs.
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you got to rise above.
No Such Thing, John Mayer.
I drove slowly and thought about how my kids—HEY!—just this morning, ran through the halls of their high school and people screamed at the top of their lungs. That there is the real world, folks.
A 16-year-old boy set himself on fire in the cafeteria as the school day started. He left a suicide note at Facebook, determined to die. He survived, but there were flying rumors and a reasonable belief he perished. My 16-year-old daughter texted from outside the school before the horrible truth was revealed. First, it was fire alarms. Then, she described fire trucks arriving, including two which made wrong turns.
LOLL, she texted, unaware of the nature of their errand.
Later she wrote They blocked it. Then The way out ;_;
This was the first hint it was something serious. Tears, 2014 style, typed by my girl. My heart fishtailed. After texting back and forth, we learned school was cancelled, then, the shock. Kids (it was thought) set themselves on fire, she wrote. I told her not believe it. Remember, it’s a rumor, my fingers advised even as I felt like my legs were melting into the floor.
My big kids arrived home, separately. My daughter was brought home by a friend, my son, found by my husband. I asked them what they knew. Both said two kids set themselves on fire in the cafeteria. I told them it was one kid, and it appeared to be a suicide. Later, we learned he survived but was in critical condition. We talked, but they were mostly quiet and dove into distractions. It was difficult to know what to say, how much to say, how to even approach them. Will what I say make it worse? How can I possibly make anything better by spouting off pop psychology tidbits that are always trotted out after school tragedies:
“How to talk to your kids about (fill in tragedy).”
I have the feeling the people who write those blurbs of advice have never stood, looking up at their teens, and had to talk about something that happened in their actual school. It’s always been across town or across the country. Distance buffers and cushions. Oh, those poor people. Heck, I’ve said it and sent up prayers. But when it happens in a mundane place where you warmed burritos in the microwave and saw the kid’s face in the hallway, well. What the hell do you say?
Do you push it? Do you give them space? What if they think about it too much? What if they don’t think about it enough? Is it okay to hug them and simply say you don’t know what to say? Adults like to swoop in for soundbites, concerned head-tilts, pats on the hand, and sincere promises the door is always open but we are just as freaked out as the kids. Be honest. Be honest. Be honest! Still, kids look to us for strength and strong we must be.
Today has been consumed by these questions, even as I drove to get our younger kids. I had to decide what to say to them, too. Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain came on. For a moment, I bristled until I was involved in a complicated traffic maneuver (I had to back up our giant van, nearly blind, because of a bottleneck). By the time I parked along the street, it was thankfully over.
That’s when I wept. For the boy, for his family, for the kids who saw, for the kids who ran. For my kids at home staring at their laptops when I left. The Smith’s How Soon is Now? wailed on. Stuttering guitar, high school me, high school everyone, I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does. I rode it out. Normally, I wait for the kids to find me parked along the street. They always do. But.
When the song ended, I stepped out of the van and walked into the snow, turning white.
Please keep kids in your thoughts, in your prayers, on your radar. Keep the doors open.
(UPDATE: Tragically, Vincent Nett died at the age of 16 of his injuries.)