Sending your kid off to school every day is already a leap of faith. You don’t know exactly where she’ll go or what he’ll do, but you trust the judgment of teachers and administrators.
Sending your kid to a school that has been repeatedly threatened with violence is another kind of leap. If the former is jumping over a puddle blindfolded — you might get a little wet and muddy, but the stakes are pretty low — the latter is like those Grand Canyon motorcycle jumps.
Parents in the Cambridge Public School district got lots of practice revving their engines last week, as families woke up on three separate mornings to the news of some variation of a bomb or gun threat against local schools. This brought us to a total of four threats over three weeks.
The first one came the Monday after the Paris attacks. The Cambridge Police Department received an anonymous e-mail bomb threat against “Cambridge mass city schools.” Parents were notified midmorning.
Given the timing, I figured it was an opportunistic prankster, taking tasteless advantage of heightened sensitivity in the wake of the Paris carnage. But . . . what if it wasn’t? A missed half-day of kindergarten seemed a small sacrifice for peace of mind against an unthinkable catastrophe. We asked a friend to pick our daughter up early.
We were unsettled, but the world is unsettled. My wife, Katie, and I focused our concern on the timing and vagueness of the district’s communication. We appreciated that they’d assessed the threat in conjunction with the police, but we would have preferred the option of keeping our daughter at home. Withholding the information until we were all at work seemed to us a breach of trust. Katie wrote as much in an e-mail to our school’s principal.
The district got lots of chances to improve last week. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, the district’s early morning alerts gave us a jolt of adrenaline to go with our morning coffee.
We sent our daughter to school each day, but the anxiety takes a toll. On us, I mean. The kindergartners we know seem largely oblivious to the tighter security, the pickup and drop-off procedures that are now tightly controlled. At our school, our daughter greets “Officer JJ” each morning at his new post by the front door.
But parents and teachers are on edge. Just after Thursday’s drop-off, my wife walked out of school behind a dude with shaggy hair and a scruffy, ’90s-era wardrobe. One of our daughter’s former teachers spotted him, too.
Calmly but firmly, Mrs. Clark asked the school resource officer to stop the man. She couldn’t match him to any children, and he didn’t have an ID. Officer JJ caught up with the guy. He was there to deliver some instruments to our school’s stellar music program.
My wife returned to the office and burst into tears.
“Mrs. Clark, what should I do?”
Mrs. Clark, a dedicated and empathetic woman, said the district had told teachers to tell parents to do whatever we’re most comfortable with.
Afterward, Katie called me, and we agreed that at this point we’re both most comfortable keeping our children in a padded room in the basement. But we decided to leave our daughter in school.
My wife is a therapist who helps others untangle their emotional knots but doesn’t see someone to help untangle hers. Her therapy is creating community. On Thursday that meant neighborhood families at our house, parents drinking beer, children running up and down stairs, blowing on kazoos, and dropping pizza on the floor. We all felt a little better. The pizza was fine. The beer took the edge off. After she got home, one neighbor e-mailed simply, “Thank you, thank you.”
Then we woke up Friday to confront the same threats all over again.
We’re not lying to our daughter about this, but we’re not going out of our way to note things she hasn’t noticed. She told Katie the other night that the school’s lockdown drills are for “when there’s a wild animal in the building.” The stories kids tell themselves to make scary thoughts tolerable can have their own eerie accuracy.
I’m still hopeful that this is a junior-high student’s misguided attempt to get out of school. But given that our police department and the FBI have been on the case for about a week, some parental anxiety is bound to leak out around the edges, and it will probably touch our daughter sooner or later.
The same neighborhood friend who e-mailed her thanks reports that her first-grader, on the way home Friday night, noted the change in atmosphere.
“You know, at some point,” the youngster said. “A kid starts to get worried.”
Sebastian Stockman is a lecturer in English at Northeastern University. Follow him on Twitter @substockman.