Within Millimeters of the Heart
When you have three children attending the same high school at exactly the same time, some parts of your life become surprisingly easy. Suddenly, everyone’s following approximately the same schedule (with staggered risings, so that not everybody is trying to brush his or her teeth at once). Drop-off times and locations are the same; pick-ups (if there are pick-ups; the weather theoretically gets nice enough in Pittsburgh that they can walk home at least once or twice a year) are roughly the same. Winter and summer breaks begin and end on the same days, and all three kids can be dragged travel to the same spring break destination simultaneously (unless, as one sometimes does, you leave one or another by the side of the road). Sure, you may be the busiest single mother on Parent-Teacher Open House Night, but usually the kids share at least one Creative Writing or Spanish or homeroom instructor, so you don’t have to go all the way around the four-storey building much more than twice.
And then one morning you glance up from your silly little wedding dress blog because your cell phone is vibrating, and the messages from far away begin to come in: Everyone okay?
Is everyone safe?
Are they okay?
This is 2014. You know that messages like these mean that something has happened, probably nearby, and because people far away from you already know about it, it’s most likely going to turn out to be something pretty bad. Your brain flits quickly past the likelihood of acts of God (tornado, earthquake, freak storm), since you write in front of a relatively large window and have not yet lost sensation in your limbs. It stumbles around for a minute as you reread the messages, trembling while it holds the word “they” to the light.
They. They. They.
The word suggests a group of people, of whom you aren’t, quite, a part.
These messages are asking about your kids.
Which means, because this is 2014, that something bad has happened at a school. Words burble at the edge of your consciousness: SandyHookAdamLanzaWestVirginiaDylanKleboldColumbine.
You start clicking bars on your browser because you can’t remember where the CNN tab is, and pull up the Yahoo “news” page you’d long ago stopped reading because it was almost entirely full of ads, and there it is: 20 Stabbed at Pittsburgh High School.
And, even though you’re not very good at it, you do the panic-stricken math: if that’s your children’s Pittsburgh high school, which is a very large Pittsburgh public high school, the odds are still suddenly very high that someone you love—someone you made–has been hurt.
You wait just a heartbeat before clicking, because this is what you’ve always done at the moment of potential or actual crisis: you freeze.
And then you click.
And God, thank God, thank any and many and every God: it’s not your kids’ school.
Later that day, you go to the doctor because you are sick, and the local news runs without interruption, and you are sicker. 14 year-old stabbed in the stomach. 17 year-old with knife wounds to the abdomen. 18 year-old with cuts to his hand and arm. These are the ages of your children. These are not your children, but they are somebody’s children. Somebody fifteen miles away looked up from her work this morning because her phone was blowing up with texts, and she saw the headline, and it was her child’s school.
And then there is the stabber, the person who did this awful thing. 16. You fasten on his face in the window of a squad car, and you want to be full of rage, but he is a child. He is little in the back seat, his head turned away from the camera; he is small enough that he has probably been bullied, which is a thing you know because your children are small.
The news anchors, already four hours into a story that has only just begun, use the word “bullied” many times. The screen fills with teenagers, blonde, be-capped, bloodied or befuddled teenagers, and soon the stories of heroism start. “He stepped in front of me and took the stab.” “This kid was getting stabbed, but he pulled the fire alarm, and then he got stabbed again.” “She put pressure on the bleeding with a sweatshirt.” “The principal tackled the kid, and then this other kid held him down.”
The screen fills with the image of the tiny stabber in the back of the squad car again, then switches to a girl with brown hair, who could be one of your own girls with brown hair, who says: “There were a bunch of kids bleeding on the lawn.”
Why do you freeze at the moment of crisis? You can’t be sure, of course, but at least part of the explanation has to do with your childhood.
Because your father was in the Navy, you moved a lot when you were little. Your first real experience of school was at the Yokohama Lighthouse Kindergarten, in Japan. There, when the school’s alarm went off, it meant that you were to leap under the classroom’s big, heavy tables, because this was either an earthquake drill or an actual earthquake. By first grade, your father had quit the Navy and moved the family to Vermont, where you and your older brother were very confused the first time the school alarm went off, and everyone filed calmly outside—for a fire drill. By the time your mother divorced your father and moved you to Iowa, when you were fifteen, you knew the drill thoroughly, and got up to go quietly outside when your high school’s alarm sent your fellow students into the hall to huddle against the lockers while the tornado siren raged.
Now, an alarm goes off, and you have to wait for someone else to do something before you know exactly what it is that you’re supposed to be frightened of.
Or you just stand there, afraid of everything.
You don’t text your children, because they don’t need the drama; if the school wants to let them know there’s been an incident, then the students will know. But in the early afternoon, your youngest daughter, a freshman, starts a group message thread to her siblings and you. “Did you hear about that stabbing today?”
“Yeah,” her sister, a junior, replies. “My homeroom teacher’s daughter was there. She’s fine, though.”
Your son, a senior, doesn’t chime in, possibly because he is in one of the few classes where it’s inappropriate to pull out your iPhone and text. But the freshman adds a sentence you can’t quite parse, because it’s one of those texts without punctuation. “The guy who pulled the fire alarm and saved a bunch of people probably posted a selfie with his stab wound on instagram.”
Eventually, you decide that the message is a jaded one: that even the day’s heroism will probably be followed by stories of selfish, stupid acts. But no (and, in a way, yes): later she tells you that the “probably” was meant to modify the notion that lives were saved; the guy who pulled the fire alarm (and probably saved a bunch of lives) actually did post a photo of himself on Instagram, brandishing his bandaged arm.
It’s one of Pittsburgh’s rare, beautiful days, but you drive to school to pick the kids up, anyway. You get there much too early, so you sit in the car, watching a mother and her toddler walking up and down the sidewalk across the busy street.
The toddler keeps veering too close to the road, and you mutter “Watch out!” or “Come on, lady!” to the mother, who cannot possibly hear you.
But it doesn’t matter, because you’re not really talking to her.
After all, you are the mother who took her kids to school.
At least there are metal detectors there, you think.
This morning, your son stays home with a stomachache. Your daughters gather up their belongings for the drive to school, and you confess that you ran out of plastic forks, so you had to put a metal one into the older girl’s lunch bag. “Sorry,” you say. “It’ll probably set off the metal detector.”
“No it won’t,” she says. “They don’t put the backpacks through the metal detectors.”
“They don’t?” you ask. “But, but isn’t that where you’d put a weapon if you had one?”
“They don’t even do anything if the detector goes off when you walk through it. If you’re white, anyway,” the younger one says. She shrugs. “Even though—“
And then you’re all thinking it: even though the person most likely to carry a weapon into a school and use it on a large number of people is a white, adolescent boy.
Like the one upstairs, sleeping. Like the one locked up in juvenile detention, despite having been charged as an adult. Like the one in “extreme critical condition” at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital down the street, whose knife wound, you learned in a press report this morning, came “within millimeters” of his heart. Like the boy who pulled the fire alarm at Franklin Regional, who definitely took a selfie and probably saved a number of lives.
How are you supposed to know which one will become which?
Or what to do, if or when he does?
“By the way,” your freshman, full of the safety knowledge her childhood has taught, says to her sister. “If you hear a fire alarm, you should just run. I heard a girl talking about it on the news last night, how she was walking into the school when she heard screaming, and then the alarm, and she just ran. You have to run.”