By Emily James
I was laying on my back facing the ceiling in a 105 degree hot room while the students of Uvalde, Texas were being murdered. There was a pattern on the wood grain next to the light fixture that looked like a man’s face. I squinted just to be sure—looked around at the knots in the nearby wood and then back—and it was still there: the shape of a man. I was on my lunch break from work and had just finished a 45-minute moving mediation. I did not yet know what was happening at that very moment. I thought of my daughter, a fourth grader, and what she was doing. I pictured her at her desk, her rainbow-colored folders stacked one on top of the other. I did not yet know that those 19 children and their teacher had been shot, were bleeding out over their desks with pencil doodles scribbled on top, with their shoelaces tied and hanging limp as their bodies. The sweat dripped from my ear down to the side of my neck and onto my pink mat on the floor.
I wonder what the parents of those 19 children were doing in those same seconds. If for the rest of their lives, whatever it was is something they can never bring themselves to do again. Watering a plant on the front step, leaning down to pull the yellowing branches. Staring into a mirror and taking a tweezer to the stray dark hairs along their brow. Waiting in line to checkout at the grocery store, deciding between milks. Taking a nap.
When I pray, I usually pray for the world, my former student texts me when I tell him I can’t stop thinking about the children in Texas. He means it from deep. He is 28 now, and just enrolled in trade school yesterday, called to tell me how excited he was. He’s going to become a plumber and then start his own business. I’m out of the classroom a few years now, but I miss teaching so much. Being with those kids was the opposite of loneliness. All the things the world made me feel and wonder would vanish when I was with them inside that room. They brought me to life with their questions and their arguments and their annoyance. For fourteen years I knew that when I arrived at my school building each morning, as exhausted as I was, whatever I felt would quickly become insignificant next to all these young bodies and the feelings they felt. And that is exactly what I needed.
Even during our lockdown drills, after chart papering the glass on the door, I was usually more focused on trying to convince the kid who was making jokes to get back in line. Being around the kids, I didn’t feel fear, or what many describe as a sadness during these drills. Their energy had a way of making me feel like we were invincible. We weren’t.
I am running out of fingers on my hands to count the students I’ve lost to gun violence throughout my career. Inside of their cars through the window, outside of a late night food spot, walking on the sidewalks under streetlights that just flickered on. Sometimes caught by surveillance videos that I cannot bring myself to watch. They are not shot inside of schools, and not all at once, but their lives are taken just the same. There have been more shootings this year than there are days of the year. We live in a city where guns are practically as easy to get as a Mr. Softee cone from the truck. But that feeling of invincibility as they’d smack each other’s shoulders and say “Shut Up,” as they passed lip gloss back and forth, that’s the feeling they hold on to. They know more than most—that it’s the feeling they deserve.
My daughter is in fourth grade. She stands sideways and looks at her profile in the mirror—she is just beginning to have a pulse on her body, what its shape means, how it’s shifting. She sticks socks inside her bra sometimes and comes to talk to me, her mouth curved, waiting for me to notice.
She was three weeks old when Sandy Hook happened. I held her on my lap and watched the footage on TV, looked down at her squinty eyes, her expressionless mouth, and didn’t think of her as a schoolchild. Truthfully, I didn’t yet think of myself as a mom. The President took a step back from his podium to wipe his tears. She wasn’t able to ask any questions as she nursed, as she cried. I could absorb the horrors of the world on my own and keep her sitting on the pillow that clipped around my waist, feeding her until she fell asleep.
This time is different. I know that her friends and her classmates will talk about it the day after. I show her the headline and tell her what’s happened. She looks in my eyes as if asking me quickly for an answer and sees right away by the way I stare back that she won’t find it there. She turns and swallows and makes her own answer. It’s far away, she tells me. It’s far from here. The map of the world hangs in a canvas behind us. It is, I tell her. I make a choice.
I send my husband a screen shot about a man who is waiting for his fourth grader in Uvalde. “Where my baby?” the article quotes him as saying. Tell me where my baby at. My husband tells me to stop sending him stuff like that. He’s the most loving man I could ask for, the only man in my life who’s been tender enough to deal with my feelings all these years and who I know for a fact I am 100 percent safe with. He will never hurt me, I can say, with as much certainty as any one person can say about a person who is not them. What’s the point? He asks. What’s the purpose? He tells me that my feelings of sadness do nothing to make the situation any less tragic, don’t take anything away from the families that this has happened to. He tells me nothing will change, and that’s disgusting, but it’s the truth. We just need to live our lives and love our family and celebrate every single moment we have, he tells me.
Part of me knows that he is right.
Most of me will never stop hurting. But he makes me wonder: what’s the purpose of our pain? I watched the senator of Connecticut standing on the senate floor pleading with the body of men and some women who govern our country. What are we doing? He asked over and over. What are we doing? He is right there with them; I am so far away. How they respond will show if his pain has purpose. But me? From my couch in a small section of the Bronx with my dog by my side? What’s the purpose of mine?
And what am I feeling sad about? I stand this morning and carefully place pearls in my ears, get ready to head down the hill to the Metro North train on a perfect spring day. Is it the loss of these small children, the obliteration of their futures, the way their families’ lives have just been blended into nothing but grief and pain? Or is it the thought that it could happen to us, to me? I watched the parents kissing their children outside of my daughter’s school building this morning. Some of them still rushed and yelled and asked them why they forgot their water bottles. But most of them held their children’s hands what I could swear looked like a little tighter. Most of them made their children face them, ran their fingers through their hair as they told them to have a good day at school. As a human race, is it the picturing of this trauma landing inside of our own lives what makes these days so hard? I stare at the unmade beds of my two girls and wonder if all our pain is for the suffering of others or just imagining it all happened to us. I wonder if there’s a difference.
The pictures have been released, and I study them closely: the clothes the children are wearing, the gaps in their teeth.
And the pain that I feel, I question its purpose. There’s an activist buried inside me, but sometimes it just can’t catch its breath. I do not know what I can do to make anything better from my office or my seat on the subway or my corner of the big gray couch in my living room. From the driver’s seat of my car with my seven- and nine-year-old in the back looking out at the budding trees and the walking, yelling people and the building passing by, their beautiful brown eyes trying to make sense of it all. I don’t scream into the air. I don’t scream at the internet because the sounds seem to get stuck and swirl in circles. I do not know if you can scream loudly enough to make someone who has plugged their ears look your way and hear your sound. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to change the world that’s flying in the rear view, sun falling in and out from the clouds behind. I could search for the answer, but I’m afraid of what I’ll find.
Emily James is a writer, educator, and advocate from New York City. She’s a mother of two elementary school daughters. You can see more of her writing and advocacy at www.emilysarahjames.com and connect with her on Twitter at @missg3rd.
Image: Jae C. Hong/AP
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