I was at the airport on Sept. 11, 2001, seven months pregnant with my fourth child and eager to enjoy a business trip that promised a night on my own while my husband tended to the “big” kids at home. There were five of them in our blended family, ranging in ages from 8 to 12. When news of the terror attacks reached the airport — along with cries to run amid rumors of bombs — I jumped into a stranger’s car and persuaded the driver to get me home to Annapolis. There, I rushed to the elementary school and found my fourth-grader. I enveloped her in my arms and whispered, “You’re safe. I’m here.” She looked at me and said, “I will never be safe again.”
Those memories came to mind on the Friday afternoon that the news of the horrors in Connecticut reached us. There is no safety anywhere: Beyond our love and embraces, we can guarantee our children so little. Things that in my own childhood would have been unimaginable have become a nearly routine part of our civic lives. Gun violence erupts and we engage in our now too-familiar rituals of collective and private mourning and grief, along with our assurances that truly, now, we will act.
Children suffer the world over when adults fail to act. They succumb to diseases that can be treated or prevented. They are victims of war and civil unrest, of our failures to negotiate peace in the Middle East or to fight hunger in our own nation.
They bear witness to atrocities. They know, despite our assurances, how little we can do in the end, really, to keep them safe.
When I’m afraid, I turn to something Helen Keller wrote, and I take comfort there. “Security is mostly a superstition,” she said. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
I want my son, now 11, to engage in that daring adventure. All children should have opportunity, joy, time. Illusory or not, they should feel safe in this world, especially in the institutions we design and manage for them. I am grateful every day for the — mostly — women who create a safe place where my son learns and grows, and I am heartbroken for the Newtown, Conn., community, which has experienced such devastation.
This summer, when gun madness erupted in Aurora, Colo., I wrote in The Post about my futile efforts to protect my son from that news — and my realization that I could shield him from so little. In the wake of Newtown, I have talked to him about gun violence and mental illness, about the adults who guard and protect him, and about the insecurities that abound in our lives. The night after the shootings, I led a community vigil, and two of my children stood with me in the growing cold and dark, trying to find warmth and comfort in community. Monday morning, my son wore white and blue to school: We had heard these are the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School (though it turns out they are actually green and white), and our children are trying to show their solidarity with those children.
We know the cues, the gestures and the words. Now we need to find it in our political and social will to act on solutions. The children are counting on us.
This post was originally published on the Opinion page of the Sunday, December 23 issue of the Washington Post.
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