GROWING UP, I ATTENDED A SMALL RURAL SCHOOL in Marion, Montana. In 2010, the town’s total population reached 886, a number assumedly greater than it had been in the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was a dreamily imaginative elementary student.
My family had moved from upstate New York—I started as a second grader. The school building took its aesthetic from the past: white clapboard siding of a symmetrical rectangular shape topped with a bell tower. The only outstanding element was the interior where book-filled shelves surrounded the small classrooms like moats. As a new student, I was comforted by the smell of dust and paper and old wood. Mr. Holmquist, my first male teacher, stood at the chalkboard like the Jolly Green Giant, though his color softened beneath red hair, freckles, and polyester pants of baby blue. His stature frightened me. At nearly seven years old, everything about me was small and tentative. Too afraid to ask him if I could use the bathroom, I peed my pants at my desk, sitting in a listless curve while subsequent laughter and jeering from classmates found its way to my ego.
The Wild West conjured images of cowboys with bandanas. Forget cowboy hats. A bandana tied around the neck was a detail of protection, a shield, the thin cotton utilized as sunscreen and probably little else. In my seven-year old girl mind, I thought it was a statement, the marking of a male ego not afraid of vulnerability. A bandana was equivalent to a pair of earrings, a decorous item to fancy up the complete image, and because of this outward display of unabashed femininity, I looked up to cowboys.
The books on the shelves were old, most likely hand-me-downs from other schools or libraries in the county or state. Like many small towns, information was outdated. Without knowing it, I lived in a sphere of removal but the books provided me with a world of intrigue and expansion. By third grade, I had become friends with categories of books bearing titles such as Flutterby and Hucklebug, the illustrations a spark to my imaginative mind and belief in mythical existences. Immersed in the beauty of nature, I grew into the idea of wild security, a sense of safety within the landscape of unlimited threat.
I didn’t know terror. The recent school shooting in Florida, leaving seventeen dead and countless lives shattered, has impaled me with yet another white-knuckled grip on the handle of grief. As our country mourns the vulnerable, I can’t help but notice the stages of trauma played out on media platforms. There is anger. There is blame. The hurt we feel is expressed in outbursts of rage and confusion, a normal response to existing in a state of unending pain. We don’t feel safe.
I can’t help but wonder how this same landscape played in the mind of the shooter. Ordinary people don’t kill other people. To say this person is unlike us is to acknowledge his vulnerability in a world of unlimited threat. I don’t want to continue this concept any further, I only want to place reality onto a situation of mythical proportion.
I won’t pretend to have grown-up solutions, but to offer my thoughts on the root details. The pattern of violence is also a pattern of fear, an emotion I know and understand to fall within the normal experience of humanity. I hope we can agree that security is, in its absolute reality, a thin veil, conceptually beautiful but elusive in performance. Shields are fallible. Our world, our landscape, is a struggle for survival, and we are a part of the greater wild, our children the most vulnerable of all. The shooter, too, was once a child. Somewhere in that time span he probably learned isolation. At home or at school, children fall into tactics that offer security from the stature the world has over them. It only makes sense that our obligation is to collectively care for all children, because every child deserves to believe in something beautiful.
My imaginative self sees a safe harbor for children in the unity of spirit. I am willing to set aside my anger and grief in the hope of connecting through courage. I am no longer afraid of vulnerability, but afraid of its absence. There are no walls in this world, only a belief that together we can replicate a sense of wild security. We must open the books that expand our worldview, take in the beauty, embrace the difference. In deliberate smallness, we can grow ourselves to believe beyond fear.