Perspective | What am I sending them there for?

view of a classroom with rows of old brown desks

By Francie Arenson Dickman
@FrancieArenson

My twin daughters are seniors in high school. They are eighteen years old. They can purchase a lottery ticket, join the military, sit on a jury and donate blood. But they can’t sleep at night.

Who can blame them. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, there were over 108 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in 2019. Just before Thanksgiving, police were asked to investigate a threatening situation at my daughters’ school. The week before that, a neighboring school was placed on lockdown. Every feed brings another shooting. Another automatic weapon. Another troubled teenager. Another classroom door barricaded with desks. Another quickly moving single file line of scared-to-death students. Another crowd of terrified parents waiting and praying that their kids are only scared to death and not dead, actually.

Years ago, my father thought I was crazy for sending my daughters to a middle school that didn’t have a cafeteria. “Who ever heard of a school without a cafeteria?” he’d say. “What are you sending them there for?” I’d laugh. Today, it seems crazy for a school to not have a bunker.

Today, my father’s words are no longer funny, the implication that I keep my kids home from school no longer preposterous.

What are you sending them there for?

Good question. It seems absurd to me that I haven’t in fact thought to keep my kids home until now. That I haven’t done the math and concluded that the danger of school outweighs any learning taking place there.

It’s ironic to me, too. We are, after all, the generation of mothers (and fathers) who’ve made careers out of micro-managing our children’s childhoods in the name of safety. For fear of allergies, we regulate the cafeteria, dictating who sits where and who eats what. For fear of sprained ankles and broken wrists, we sign waivers before our kids go to day camp or Jump America. For fear of skin cancer, we smother our kids in sunscreen. For the largely unfounded fear of abduction, we keep our kids inside or track them on Life360. And yet, despite the very real fear of death, we keep sending our kids to school.

What are we thinking?

Perhaps we aren’t thinking. On the one hand, there’s not much to think about. School is mandated by law, it’s not optional. But it goes beyond the fear of the truant officer knocking on our doors. The notion that kids belong in school is engrained in who we are. It’s part of the fabric of our society. School days, school days, dear old Golden Rule days. We send our kids to school because education is as American as baseball and apple pie.

On the day of this past November’s school shooting in Santa Clarita, my daughter’s Spanish teacher told her class that in South America, where she is from, parents have no problem keeping their kids out of school when the political conditions are threatening. Going to school is optimal, but staying home isn’t the end of the world.

It feels like it is, however, where we live. Where we live, the pressure to do well in order to get good grades in order to get into a good college in order to, presumably, have a successful life, drives kids to go to school no matter what. Kids walk the halls burning with fever, hobbling on crutches, or, with sky high anxiety, due to the active shooter drills and the threat of real ones.

America is unrecognizable but we still cling to its dream. Though today it seems we’re driven by fear rather than by the promise of incredible freedom, and the fear that our kids’ SAT scores won’t keep up with the Jones’ kids’ outranks the fear that our kids—or the Jones’—may die in the process. What is wrong with us? What is wrong with me? Per Everytown for Gun Safety, 69 kids have been injured, 28 have died from gunfire on school grounds in 2019 alone, and November, in the wake of Santa Clarita, was the first time that keeping my kids home crossed my mind. Shame on me. Logic dictates I do otherwise.

Unfortunately, logic doesn’t seem to dictate much these days. For example, does it not stand to reason that if the government is going to require attendance at school, then the government should ensure that our students won’t get blown to bits while they’re there? All this talk about quid pro quo, maybe we should focus on this one. The dear old Golden Rule itself, do unto others as you would have others do unto you, is in itself a quid pro quo. The government isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. Why should kids hold up theirs.

What am I sending them there for?

In Spanish class, my daughter’s teacher explained that when kids in South America stay home from school, they do not spend their days playing video games, they participate in organized protest, pushing for change. Grounded in necessity, organized protest is part of the fabric of their society.

Is it time, I wonder, to begin weaving it into ours? Has the time come, are conditions bad enough, to warrant that students go on strike? Forget textbooks and whiteboards, paper and pencils, should students stay home from school until the government gives them an automatic weapons ban, better background checks, Red Flag laws, and funding for mental health care? Although, I don’t know how that would work for much longer than a day with kids at home, parents at work, with laws demanding attendance, with kids concerned about the detrimental impact of unauthorized absences on their transcripts. Our society is just not wired that way.

If boycotting school is an unrealistic agent for change in America, I think our next best option is, ironically, to send our kids to school. And while they’re there, smother them in Civics. Inundate them with lessons on history, philosophy and alas, the Golden Rule. Teach them critical thought. Help them understand and appreciate that they each have a voice and in our country, though we do protest, our voices are primarily expressed at the ballot box rather than in the streets.

My daughters may not be able to sleep at night but they can, come the next election, vote. And I can rest a little easier knowing this—that all these students who’ve gone to school in fear can now head to the polling place. As parents, we can do our part, too, by making sure our kids get there. Hopefully, through a combination of voting and micro-managing, we’ll bring about change. That’s activism, American style.

Francie Arenson Dickman is an author, essayist and activist, American style.

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